The bipartisan infrastructure bill framework sets aside $65 billion for broadband — but the real fight for internet dollars is just beginning, Axios' Margaret Harding McGill reports.
Why it matters: That record infusion of funding, spurred by the pandemic's spotlight on the digital divide, has the potential to make the White House's goal of connecting all Americans a reality — unless it gets mired in squabbling.
What's happening: The way that $65 billion will be divvied up is still very much in flux as the Senate considers how to turn the framework into legislation.
- "When you have a large pot of money, people are going to try to nibble away at it," Sen. Angus King (I-Maine) told Axios. "Of course, the larger question is we've got to get this built."
- It's still far from clear if the bipartisan infrastructure plan will pass and, if so, how details may change.
Details: One key position King has staked out is that $40 billion of the funding should go to states to use for broadband, as envisioned by his bipartisan BRIDGE Act with Sens. Rob Portman (R-Ohio) and Michael Bennet (D-Colo.).
- "The states know best what their problems are, where the gaps are and how best to address them," King said. "One of the problems with the FCC is their maps are lousy."
The other side: The FCC's latest mechanism for awarding broadband funding — reverse auctions in which providers compete against each other to win subsidies — gives taxpayers "more bang for the buck," said Ross Lieberman, senior vice president for government affairs at broadband company trade group ACA Connects.
What to watch: A key question is how policymakers will address the affordability and adoption issues at play in the digital divide.
- A study commissioned by ACA found that, while roughly 12 million households lack access to the internet, 30 million households do not subscribe to home broadband.
- King says he'd like to see the bipartisan bill include money for digital equity, but doesn't believe a long-term subsidy to help pay for consumers' internet is the answer.
- "Frankly, I'm concerned about simply subsidizing rates because I don't think it's sustainable," King told Axios. "Economics and history tells us that all that will happen in that case is that the rates will eventually go up to absorb whatever the subsidy is and the rate-payer is no better off."
The bottom line: How and where the billions of dollars are spent could be the difference between success and failure in achieving universal broadband access.