How the 2016 Presidential Candidates Plan to Bridge the Digital Divide
Broadband access has hardly been discussed during the presidential race, on either side of the aisle.
Illustration by Adam Mignanelli
Internet access is imperative for equal education and opportunity. Yet 19 million Americans, some 6 percent of the population, still lack access to affordable broadband. This is a significant problem.
In rural areas, nearly one quarter of the population has no broadband internet. Yet bridging the country's digital divide has hardly been discussed by the candidates running for president in 2016, on either side of the aisle.
Broadband access has been overshadowed by other headline-grabbing internet issues during this campaign, like encryption, mass surveillance, and net neutrality. The silence is especially deafening on the Republican side, where the party's three candidates, Ted Cruz, Donald Trump, and John Kasich, have no plans for expanding internet access to underserved parts of the country, namely low-income, minority and rural areas.
Republican candidates have also stayed mostly mum on issues like internet subsidies for the poor and a monopolized cable industry driving up internet prices. The party also opposes the Federal Communications Commission's (FCC) decision to exercise its regulatory power to support city-run broadband by preempting state laws threatening to block community networks.
On the Democratic side, things are slightly brighter. Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders have included building out high-speed broadband as part of their infrastructure policy, and have been a bit more vocal on timely issues like industry competition, municipal fiber networks, and broadband subsidies.
Here's a closer look at where the 2015 presidential candidates stand.
Bernie Sanders' infrastructure plan pledges $1 trillion over five years to fixing America's crumbling infrastructure, including earmarking $25 billion to expand high-speed broadband networks in underserved areas, particularly rural areas. There's so far no plan for where the funding will come from.
Sanders specifically named municipal broadband one of the targets of his proposed infrastructure spending, along with roads, bridges, transit, the electric grid, and other systems.
The senator from Vermont has been the most outspoken of the presidential candidates about the need for increased competition in the telecom marketplace, and stopping further consolidation of a monopolized industry that limits choices for consumers and drives up internet prices.
He wrote a letter to the FCC calling for more industry competition in order to help bring down the cost of broadband, especially in light of the ongoing merger between Charter Communications, Time Warner Cable, and Bright House networks. If the merger goes through it would further stifle competition, giving consumers even fewer choices.
Sanders is also the only candidate to voice support for the FCC's decision in March to extend the decade-old Lifeline program to include subsidised broadband internet for low-income households that can't afford it. Sanders tweeted: "Broadband access is a necessity, not a luxury. I urge the FCC to expand Lifeline and help millions of working families get online."
The sentiment is laudable, but the big question is how Sanders would pay for his ambitious plans.
Hillary Clinton's 5-year, $275 billion infrastructure plan commits to connecting 100 percent of US homes by 2020, providing affordable broadband with "world class" speeds, as well as digital literacy programs to make sure people know how to use the internet once they do get access. It calls high-speed internet a necessity, not a luxury. (Sound familiar?)
To fund the program, she plans to pull from a combination of private and public funds. The plan doesn't mention how much specifically is allocated to increasing broadband access.
Clinton's platform calls for greater competition in local broadband markets. She has made statements supporting "preempting state laws that unfairly protect incumbent businesses," a clear reference to the FCC decision last year to preempt state laws (laws that are often backed by telecom giants) that would block cities from building their own broadband networks.
Clinton has fingered local telecom monopolies for high internet prices, and said she would fight industry consolidation by beefing up antitrust regulation from the Department of Justice and Federal Trade Commission.
Ted Cruz's jobs platform makes no mention of broadband access or closing the digital divide in the United States. However, the "internet freedom" section includes a clear nod to his anti-municipal broadband position, stating "Every time you put unelected bureaucrats in charge of a market, they stifle innovation and favor special interests—just look at the United States Post Office compared to Amazon and FedEx."
In 2014, Cruz signed a letter to the FCC expressing serious concern over the agency's statement that it planned to exercise its power to preempt state laws prohibiting municipal networks—or as the letter called it, "taxpayer-funded broadband."
Toeing the Republican party line, Cruz opposes muni networks on the grounds that the federal regulation interferes with states' rights and that the government doesn't have a right to compete with or replace private companies in the marketplace.
Though his presidential platform makes no mention of broadband access, as Governor of Ohio, John Kasich oversaw a program called Connect Ohio aimed at closing the digital divide in the state. Ohio is not one of the 21 US states that currently have laws prohibiting city-owned fiber networks.
When asked by a voter on the campaign trail how he plans to provide affordable internet to people who don't have it, Kasich's answer was vague at best. He referenced "wireless technologies currently being developed" and suggested that if the voter's internet cost is too high they should look at what they're using it for.
Many of Donald Trump's policy visions have been vague at best, but even mindspray about China is more substantive than his thoughts on the digital divide, which so far have amounted to nothing.
REPUBLICAN PARTY LINE
Seeing as none of the three Republican presidential candidates have specific plans for expanding broadband networks out to underserved areas, it's worth taking a look at how the party line comes down on some of these issues.
To start, the small-government ideology tends to eschew federal infrastructure spending, instead leaving it up to the free market to find a solution, said Timothy Karr, senior director of strategy at Free Press. The nonpartisan organization's Internet 2016 project has been following the presidential campaigns around the country, tracking their debates, papers, policy platforms and going to town halls to ask about internet issues.
The free market theory is that the telecom companies that control internet access can put a share of their profits back into improving networks, building faster connections, and building out infrastructure to areas that lack service.
"The marketplace hasn't really in and of itself provided the solution."
However, Free Press has been tracking those capital expenditures, and Karr said that the revenue telecom firms earn from providing internet service "hasn't been enough to incentivize them to serve some of the communities where broadband access is not an option," Karr told me. "The marketplace hasn't really in and of itself provided the solution."
"There are different ways in which corporations could be facilitating buildout if they were interested in doing so," agreed David Segal, co-founder and director of Demand Progress. "But they're generally going to go where they're going to get the greatest returns at lowest costs."
Reactions to the FCC decision to support city-run broadband by preempting state laws threatening to block it, and the agency's decision to extend the Lifeline subsidy to close the broadband gap, have also been split along party lines, including the FCC votes themselves.
"I haven't seen much from the [Republican presidential] candidates, but most Republicans spout this kind of nonsense around muni broadband," said Segal, referring to FCC Commissioner Michael O'Rielly's comment that "It is not the government's role to offer services instead of or in competition with private actors" and that the decision was a "illogical and tortured" reading of the law.
"It's bad public policy, and entails kowtowing to the interests of the ISPs and their designs to extract monopoly profits"
"And most states that passed bans on muni broadband were in Republican hands," Segal added. "It's bad public policy, and entails kowtowing to the interests of the ISPs and their designs to extract monopoly profits—so it's also anti-free-market."
A free market is the lynchpin of the Republican party line, but the 2016 presidential candidates have not taken a stance on the ever-increasing consolidation in the broadband industry or the ongoing Charter-TWC merger.
"We haven't seen any statements [from the Republican candidates] in regard to whether or not they support the merger," said Karr. "There has been a real lack of comment from the Republican side in regard to how marketplace can bring down prices and increase competition and increase access."
Segal flagged the ongoing telecom merger as an area where he'd like to hear more from Clinton, as well.
"At at top level, [her plan] is mostly good, but there's some vagueness and there are conspicuous omissions," Segal told me. "She could be speaking out against Charter's attempted takeover of Time Warner Cable—which will impact New York and California, which are about to hold primaries—and signal more generally that she's going to oppose industry consolidation."
The Republican platform also opposes potential government overreach from federal programs like the Lifeline subsidy, which Karr called "the most important policy of the moment" in terms of bridging the digital divide. Republicans have been outspoken against the subsidy program. The GOP House just announced a bill to put a cap on how much the government can spend on the Lifeline subsidies.
Access to the internet is crucial to compete in a global economy, but also to a functioning democracy that represents all citizens equally, and not just the powerful telecom lobby that has a huge amount of influence in the political process.
"The people who are most likely to be without or with limited access are among the country's more disenfranchised communities more generally," said Segal. "That's part of why we think it's so important to get more people online—to connect them with info, but also to get them connected to our country's political processes."