Despite billions of dollars in tax breaks, subsidies, and regulatory favors, U.S. broadband remains patchy, slow, and expensive by international standards. A lack of competition in many U.S. markets means 42 million Americans still lack any broadband whatsoever, double official government estimates. Eighty-three million more are trapped under a monopoly, usually Comcast.
Enter the Biden administration, whose new $2 trillion infrastructure plan sets aside $100 billion with the goal of delivering “future proof” broadband to every home in America within eight years.
While specifics are murky, a new fact sheet on the proposal states the plan won’t just involve throwing more subsidies at America’s deep-pocketed incumbents, an American pastime studies show historically hasn’t delivered on the promise of faster, better broadband.
Instead, the Biden administration says it plans to “prioritize support” for broadband networks owned, operated, or run in concert with local governments. Frustrated by limited competition and substandard service, some 750 U.S. communities have built local broadband networks that studies have shown are faster and less expensive than traditional options.
Hoping to crush this grass roots attempt to nudge the country toward better broadband, U.S. telecom monopolies have spent decades pushing laws in roughly twenty states aimed at restricting or blocking such efforts, something singled out by the Biden proposal.
“President Biden’s plan will promote price transparency and competition among internet providers, including by lifting barriers that prevent municipally-owned or affiliated providers and rural electric co-ops from competing on an even playing field with private providers, and requiring internet providers to clearly disclose the prices they charge,” the plan states.
The problem: neither the Biden FCC nor broader administration can do much about such state-level restrictions. Previous efforts by the Obama FCC to eliminate state barriers to community broadband were shot down in court. Still, clear support for such efforts is a course change from the GOP, which has repeatedly tried to ban community broadband entirely.
Consumer groups argue that when it comes to U.S. broadband, the problem isn’t just access, but cost. Due to limited competition, Americans pay some of the highest prices for broadband in the developed world, most recently showcased by toddlers in Silicon Valley having to huddle around fast food restaurants simply to attend class during COVID lockdowns.
While a recent bill passed by Congress includes $50 subsidies to help low-income families afford broadband, the Biden plan is quick to note that such measures are a temporary fix, and that “continually providing subsidies to cover the cost of overpriced internet service is not the right long-term solution for consumers or taxpayers.”
Granted, American history is filled with bold political promises to finally bridge America’s stubborn digital divide, but lawmakers awash in telecom campaign contributions historically haven’t been keen to what’s necessary to actually accomplish that goal, usually because it would upset politically-powerful giants like AT&T, Comcast, and Verizon.
For decades, entrenched broadband providers have received billions in subsidies, tax breaks, and merger approvals in exchange for network build out promises that repeatedly, chronically wind up half deployed. Efforts to hold these companies accountable for these failed promises have proven spotty at best under both US political parties.
Enter COVID-19, which not only showcased the essential nature of broadband, but applied unprecedented pressure on lawmakers and regulators to do better. That has sparked new efforts to improve terrible U.S. broadband maps, and a renewed push to boost the definition of broadband from 25 Mbps down, 3 Mbps up to a more modern 100 Mbps in both directions.
“Americans pay too much for the internet – much more than people in many other countries – and the President is committed to working with Congress to find a solution to reduce internet prices for all Americans, increase adoption in both rural and urban areas, hold providers accountable, and save taxpayer money,” the administration said.
While the proof will be in the pudding, the Biden plan is a dramatic departure from the Trump administration, which refused to even acknowledge that U.S. broadband wasn’t competitive, and spent the better part of four years gutting both net neutrality — and the FCC’s consumer protection authority massive telecom monopolies.
While the FCC is expected to reverse both policies, it can’t do so until the Biden administration fully staffs the agency and appoints a permanent boss, something insiders say should occur sometime within the next few weeks or months. In the interim, getting any meaningful reform through a telecom campaign-cash slathered Congress remains as challenging as ever.