Biden Broadband Plan Weakened by Lobbying and ‘Bipartisan Compromise’

Experts say there’s some very good things in the broadband infrastructure proposal, but it won’t truly fix what ails the broken sector.

Aug 5 2021, 1:00pm

The Biden administration’s original $100 billion broadband plan has been steadily scaled back by “bipartisan compromise” and telecom lobbying. And while Congress is finalizing a $65 billion version that experts say contains some excellent improvements, they also say it falls well short of fixing the real problem: broadband monopolization and the high prices that result.

After months of debate, a draft version of the infrastructure proposal passed a critical 67-32 vote late last week. The broadband component earmarks $65 billion to shore up broadband access, $42 million of which will be dedicated to broadband grants. Distribution of this money will be dictated by a much improved broadband mapping system than used in years’ past. 

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Another $14 million in the proposal would be dedicated toward extending a Covid broadband relief program dubbed the Emergency Broadband Benefit (EBB). The EBB provides struggling Americans a $50 monthly discount off their broadband bill, though several ISPs have been accused of exploiting the program to drive users to more expensive plans.

While the EBB is slated to be expanded and renamed the Affordable Connectivity Program, insiders familiar with the negotiations say the payout to lower-income Americans may be notably reduced, and concerns remain about a lack of guard rails preventing abuse by ISPs

Roughly two-thousand companies and organizations have been lobbying Congress to impact the infrastructure proposal, telecom giants among them.

Several components of the original broadband plan were quick casualties of such pressure. Biden’s original proposal calling for funding for the rising tide of community broadband networks, for example, was among the first to hit the cutting room floor during negotiations. Last February, heavily-lobbied GOP lawmakers proposed banning community broadband entirely.

Still, experts say there’s numerous and meaningful aspects of the bill, including a significant boost in the definition of broadband. Lawmakers have been pressuring the FCC to upgrade its pathetic broadband definition of broadband—currently 25 Mbps down, 3 Mbps up—to a more modern 100 Mbps in both directions.

The plan gets close; to obtain any of this broadband funding ISPs will need to be able to provide speeds of at least 100 Mbps downstream, 20 Mbps up. The slower upstream threshold was the direct result of sector lobbying, groups like the Electronic Frontier Foundation argue

“By defining internet access as the ability to get 100/20 Mbps service, the draft language allows cable monopolies to argue that anyone with access to ancient, insufficient internet access does not need federal money to build new infrastructure,” the EFF’s Ernesto Falcon said of the plan. 

“The combination of cable and wireless companies is a formidable force in Congress,” agreed Andrew Schwartzman, senior counselor for the Benton Institute for Broadband & Society.

Still, Schwartzman pointed to numerous, good aspects of the proposal that remain intact. Such as broader restrictions on “redlining,” designed to prevent large ISPs like AT&T from refusing to upgrade lower income and marginalized communities to better broadband. Groups like the EFF have long called for a strict ban on redlining on both the state and federal level.

“The digital redlining provision is very significant and may be underappreciated,” Schwartzman said. “The fact that it was among the very last elements of the bill being fought over at the end of last week shows just how important it is.”

Much like Biden’s recent executive order (which called for the restoration of net neutrality rules), much of the plan’s success depends largely on who Biden appoints to permanently run the FCC, which still hasn’t happened six months into his first term. Appoint somebody too cozy with industry, groups warn, and you could wind up with a final product that’s decidedly undercooked.

While the plan should help the up to 42 million Americans without broadband, it falls short in upending the rampant regional monopolization that has left 83 million Americans stuck with just one ISP. Telecom lobbyists are heavily vested in protecting this regional dominance, the direct cause of high prices, spotty coverage, slow speeds, and historically terrible customer service. 

The entire infrastructure plan could still see significant changes, and there remains a possibility it doesn’t pass at all as Congress bickers over more than 281 amendments up for consideration. While the steady weakening of the broadband component is often framed as “bipartisan compromise,” telecom lobbyists don’t appear to be doing much of the compromising.

Tagged:

infrastructure, Broadband

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