Feb 22, 2021 - Technology

Pandemic puts money, political muscle behind broadband

Illustration of a suited hand holding out a lot of ethernet cables. 

Illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios

Now that the pandemic has made it clear just how essential it is to be connected to high-speed internet, lawmakers are finally putting billions of dollars into funding government programs to expand access to it.

Why it matters: The big lesson from the pandemic is that broadband service is no longer a nice-to-have amenity — it’s critical for virtual school, remote work and telemedicine. Yet around 14.5 million Americans still lack access to it, according to the FCC. (Many advocates believe that figure undercounts the number of people still not connected.)

Driving the news: Federal and local officials in both parties are taking ambitious steps.

  • Congress set aside $7 billion in funding for broadband in the December COVID-19 relief package, including a $3.2 billion Emergency Broadband Benefit program that will provide up to $50 a month off internet bills and a one-time $100 discount for a laptop or other device for low-income families.
  • The House Energy & Commerce Committee earlier this month advanced $7.6 billion in funding to expand internet connectivity for students and teachers without access as part of its COVID-19 relief budget reconciliation legislation.
  • Acting FCC Chairwoman Jessica Rosenworcel this week launched a broadband task force to improve the agency's data collection and mapping tools, which have long been criticized for under-reporting the access gaps.

What's happening: Urgency has also increased at the state level: 34 states enacted legislation or resolutions related to broadband development in 2020, per the National Conference of State Legislatures. Action is already underway this year; for example:

  • In Nebraska, 11 bills have been introduced so far to expand broadband access and Gov. Pete Rickets has for the first time earmarked state general funds to address it, per the Omaha World-Herald.
  • In Texas, Republican state senators have proposed a creating a Broadband Development Program, establishing a map of where improvements are needed and creating a statewide broadband plan within a year, per the Houston Chronicle.
  • Ohio Republican Gov. Mike DeWine's budget proposal for $210 million toward increasing broadband access has bipartisan support and was fast-tracked by the legislature last week, the AP reports.

The big picture: Such steps to close the digital divide are long overdue, but previous proposals were typically hobbled by partisan bickering or overshadowed by sexier tech-related issues.

  • Now, though, the stark need for better and more affordable access has finally summoned political will from both parties.
  • “People are finally serious not just about talking, but spending," said Matt Wood, vice president of policy and general counsel at Free Press. "This is something that’s essential and everybody needs it and not everybody can afford it right now."

Another factor is pushing high-speed internet access to the top of the priority list: The sudden potential for smaller towns to attract new residents who are fleeing big, expensive cities.

  • People can't work remotely with slow and spotty internet service.
  • The increased reliance on smart phones, wireless devices and — eventually — 5G services is only possible if fiber networks in the ground keep expanding to handle the extra traffic.

Yes, but: Plenty of hurdles remain. For example, the FCC is tasked with getting the federal $50 broadband benefit program up and running, but it hasn't yet figured out what to do if the money runs out and customers suddenly face "bill shock."

  • “I also want to think about if there are opportunities for helping those people to stay in that service even after the program might end," said Rosenworcel.

Partisan differences are also emerging. Michigan Republican Tim Walberg offered an amendment to the proposed $7.6 billion fund for expanding student and teacher broadband access that would condition the funding on schools providing in-person instruction (the amendment was rejected).

  • More broadly, House Republicans have focused on broadband deployment proposals in 28 bills, including deregulatory measures such as imposing deadlines on cities to act on permitting requests or limiting environmental reviews.
  • A bill from Rep. Billy Long (R-Missouri) would curb cities from building their own broadband networks.

Our thought bubble: Urgent proposals today don't necessarily translate to tangible results in five years.

  • This may be low-hanging fruit for lawmakers who are hearing from people in their districts about the need for better, affordable internet service.
  • But the key to sustainable broadband expansion projects is long-term planning and a strategic bipartisan commitment that outlasts political term cycles — something Congress and state legislatures don't have a strong record of doing.
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