A rural-urban broadband divide, but not what you think of

Whom should the government help to get superfast internet access?

The question is not directly addressed in President Biden’s multi-billion dollar infrastructure plan, which Dedicates tens of billions of dollars to expanding access to broadband But does not give much information about how the money will be spent.

But veterans of the nation’s decade-long effort to expand the nation’s broadband footprint worry that the new plan carries the same bias as its predecessors: billions spent to extend Internet infrastructure to the farthest reaches of rural America. where some people live, and Very little will be devoted to connecting millions of urban households Those who live in areas with high-speed service that they cannot afford.

“From an economic and society standpoint, the most important thing is that everyone wants to be online,” said Blair levin, who oversaw a broadband project at the Federal Communications Commission during the Obama administration and is now a fellow at the Brookings Institution. “From a political point of view, the biggest political capital is behind accelerating deployment where there is none, which means in rural areas.”

There’s a Political and Economic Argument for Dedicating Billions of Taxpayers’ Dollars to Bringing Broadband rural community Those make up the political base of former President Donald Trump, whom Biden wants to win. But some critics worry that the capital-heavy rural-first strategy could overtake an urban America that is more populous, diverse and productive.

About 81 percent rural households According to Census Bureau data, about 86 percent in urban areas are connected to broadband. But the number of urban households without connections, 13.6 million, is almost three times more than the 4.6 million Rural family Those who do not have one.

“We also have to be careful not to fall into the old trap of aggressively solving one community’s problem – a community that is racially diverse but predominantly white – while trying to solve another community’s problem. Relying on the principles of hope and the market – a community that is racially diverse but disproportionately made up of people of color and low-income earners,” said Joey Chane, senior vice president of policy and advocacy at the National Urban League Recently told the House Appropriations Committee.

Wiring is apparently expensive in rural America long distance involved, But it can be done. In A policy document from a few years agoPaul De Sa, a former chief strategist for the FCC, estimated that expanding broadband access from 86 to 100 percent of rural America would cost about $80 billion. If the goal was to wire only 98 percent, the price would drop to $40 billion.

If money is no object, Mr. de Sa said, the federal government could expand high-speed fiber lines to every farm in the country and ensure that 18 million homes in rural and urban America have yet to be reached. is not plugged in. Why?

But there is always a shortage of money. Mr Biden has tried to woo Republicans by reducing his original infrastructure plan, slashing a broadband proposal from $100 billion to $65 billion. Republican’ more strong counterargument Focuses mostly on rural areas and offers little to urban residents.

The Democratic proposal to Congress by Representative James Clyburn of South Carolina and Senator Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota also devotes only a small portion of its resources to Broadband connection expansion in cities and suburbs.

Indeed, there is a long history of rural bias in broadband funding. From 2009 to 2017, the federal government pledged more than $ 47 billion in programs To extend high speed reach to remote farms and settlements.

These investments often did not perform as advertised. For example, the Rural Utility Service, a descendant of the federal agency created to electrify rural America during the Great Depression, ran $3.5 billion program of loans and grants It said that this would help in broadband reaching 70 lakh people of 28 lakh rural households. It will also connect 362,000 businesses in rural America and 30,000 important institutions, including schools and police departments.

Five years later, the program supported the deployment of 66,521 miles of fiber optic cable and added thousands of wireless access points. But all of those instruments supported just 334,830 customers, and the program returned almost a tenth of the money to the Treasury because it did not find viable projects.

Connecting urban households does not require laying thousands of miles of fiber optic cable through grasslands and alleys. Telecom companies have already installed a lot of fiber and cable in the cities. The expansion of broadband to unserved urban homes, most of them in low-income neighborhoods and often homes of families of color, is usually needed to make connections cheaper and more relevant.

A survey by the Pew Research Center in 2019 found that Half the people who did not have broadband connection Said they couldn’t afford it. Only 7 percent cited lack of access to high-speed networks as the main reason.

“Our investments should not only solve for deployment or availability gaps,” argued Ms. Chani. “They must also address the adoption gap, the usage gap, and the economic opportunity gap in order to truly achieve digital equity.”

Biden’s team seems to be aware of this. Administration officials have proposed encouraging new companies to distribute broadband, adding competition and thus controlling prices.

But there is little evidence that phone and cable companies compete more on price. In many regions, there are one to three providers of high-speed access, and they can set the price they want without fear of losing customers.

“Looking at the last decade, there is no evidence that there is going to be additional competition in the market that will drive down prices for most people any time soon,” Mr. de Sa said.

The administration wants to encourage and subsidize cities and local governments to build high-speed infrastructure that can be used by Internet providers to service residents. The idea is that multiple companies will use those shared lines to offer competing plans, which will drive down prices.

But a former FCC official, Mr. Levine, said municipalities have no cost advantage over cable or telecommunications companies. Therefore the economics does not support the idea that a municipality can provide a service at a much lower cost. (And local lawmakers may not be interested, given the other demands on local governments. “If I had been sitting in the city council, I wouldn’t be sure I’d give my money to that,” Mr. Levine said.

It attempts to expand broadband penetration into one of the more challenging areas of American politics: the debate over what is often referred to as “welfare”.

Experts such as Mr. Levin argue that to make the service affordable for low-income families, access to universal broadband usage would probably require a permanent subsidy offer. And the government must persuade households to subscribe to broadband by providing online services that are valuable to low-income households – eg, health, education and employment – ​​and help them figure out how to use technology. Let’s do.

There isn’t much like it in the Biden infrastructure proposal. A White House fact sheet said permanent subsidies were “Not the right long-term solution for consumers or taxpayers.”

Also, subsidies don’t turn out well. Only 36 percent of rural adults say the government should provide subsidies to help low-income Americans purchase high-speed home Internet service. That compares to 50 percent of urban residents and 43 percent of suburbanites, according to a 2017 survey by Pew.

In early May, the federal government launched a $3.2 billion temporary program Offer a subsidy of $50 or $75 per month Low-income households will have to pay for broadband service. It is set to expire when the money runs out or six months after the pandemic was announced, whichever is earlier.

If made permanent, it could be a game changer for many American families. But such subsidies could add up to $8.4 billion to $12 billion or more annually for 14 million households.

The only source of permanent support is called Lifeline, which provides a subsidy of $9.25 per month to purchase communication services. But very few eligible households actually use the Internet to purchase access; Most use it for cellphone service.

There are other considerations, such as seeking out large technology companies that benefit immensely from online services. Contribute to the cost of wiring the nation. Government programs that benefit from getting all Americans online, such as Medicaid and Medicare, can also contribute to funding.

“There are some paths ahead, but first there has to be some kind of acceptance that as a country, we benefit from having everyone and the forces of the private market are not going to produce that result,” said Mr. Levine. . “I think we’re finally there. But we need leadership and a plan that gets us to the finish line.”

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