Broadband divide between city and country, but not the one you think of

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Who should the government help to get ultra-fast Internet access?

This issue is not addressed directly in President Biden’s multi-billion dollar infrastructure plan, which allocates tens of billions of dollars to expand broadband access but does not provide details on how the money will be spent.

But veterans of the nation’s decade-long efforts to expand broadband coverage in the country are concerned that the new plan carries with it the same trend as its predecessors: billions will be spent expanding internet infrastructure to the remotest corners of rural America, where few people live. as well as little will be devoted to connecting millions of urban families who live in areas with high-speed service that they cannot afford.

“From an economic and social point of view, the most important thing to do is connect everyone who wants to be online to the Internet,” he said. Blair Levinwho oversaw the Obama administration’s FCC broadband project and is now a fellow at the Brookings Institution. “Politically, the largest political capital is behind the acceleration of deployment where it does not exist, that is, in the countryside.”

There is political and economic logic in spending billions of taxpayer dollars on broadband. rural communities which make up a large part of the political base of former President Donald Trump, which Biden wants to win over to his side. But some critics fear that a capital-focused strategy, primarily in rural areas, could leave behind an urban America that is more populous, diverse and productive.

ABOUT 81 percent of rural households are connected to broadband, up from about 86 percent in urban areas, according to the Census Bureau. But the number of urban households without an Internet connection, 13.6 million, is almost three times that of 4.6 million. rural households who do not have it.

“We must also be careful not to fall into the old traps of aggressively addressing one community – a community that is racially diverse but predominantly white – while relying on hope and market principles to address the challenge of another community – a community that is also racial diverse but disproportionately populated with people of color and lower incomes, ”Joy Cheney, senior vice president of policy and advocacy for the National Urban League, recently told the House Appropriations Committee.

Wiring in rural America is clearly expensive considering long distances involved, But this can be done. IN a political document a few years agoPaul de Sa, a former chief strategist at the FCC, estimates that it would cost about $ 80 billion to expand broadband access from 86 percent to 100 percent of America’s rural population. If the goal were to connect only 98%, the price would drop to $ 40 billion.

If money doesn’t matter, Mr de Sa said, the federal government could run high-speed fiber lines past every farm in the country and also provide care for the 18 million rural and urban American households that are not yet connected to the grid. of.

But money is never enough. Mr. Biden tried to win over Republicans by trimming his original infrastructure plan, cutting the broadband offer from $ 100 billion to $ 65 billion. Republicans harsher counter offer focuses mainly on rural areas and offers little to urban dwellers.

The Democratic proposal put forward in Congress by Representative James Cliburn of South Carolina and Senator Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota also devotes only a small portion of its resources to expansion of broadband connections in cities and suburbs

Indeed, agricultural bias in broadband financing has a long history. From 2009 to 2017, the federal government invested more than $ 47 billion in programs. expand high-speed access to remote farms and villages

These investments often did not match the advertisements. For example, the Rural Utilities Service, a descendant of a federal agency created to electrify rural America during the Great Depression, operated $ 3.5 billion loan and grant program which, he said, will help expand broadband to seven million hard-to-reach people in 2.8 million rural households. It will also connect 362,000 businesses in rural America and 30,000 critical institutions, including schools and police departments.

Five years later, the program supported the deployment of 66,521 miles of fiber optic and added thousands of wireless access points. But all this equipment supported only 334,830 subscribers, and the program returned about a tenth of the money to the Treasury because it could not find viable projects.

Connecting urban families does not require thousands of miles of fiber to run through meadows and valleys. Telecommunications companies have already installed many fiber-optic cables in cities. Expanding broadband to unserved urban households, most of whom live in low-income areas and are often home to families of color, typically requires cheaper and more relevant connectivity.

A 2019 Pew Research Center survey found that half of the people who did not have a broadband connection said they couldn’t afford it. Only 7% cited the lack of access to high-speed networks as the main reason.

“Our investment must go beyond filling gaps in deployment or availability,” said Ms. Cheney. “They also need to close the decision gap, the use gap and the economic opportunity gap to truly achieve digital equality.”

Biden’s team seems to be aware of this. Administration officials propose encouraging new companies to provide broadband to add competition and thus contain prices.

But there is little evidence that telephone and cable companies are competing strongly on price. In many regions, there are between one and three broadband providers and they can set prices as they see fit without fear of losing customers.

“Looking at the past decade, there is no evidence that there will be additional competition in the market that will bring prices down for most people any time soon,” said Mr de Sa.

The administration also wants to encourage and subsidize cities and local governments to create high-speed infrastructure that ISPs can use to provide services to residents. The idea is that many companies will use these generic lines to offer competing plans while driving down prices.

But Mr Levin, a former FCC official, said municipalities have no advantage over cable or telecom companies. Thus, the economy does not support the idea that the municipality can provide services at a substantially lower cost. And local legislators might not be that interested given the other requirements for local governments. “If I were in the city council, I’m not sure that I would give my money for this,” said Mr. Levin.

This places efforts to expand broadband penetration into one of the most challenging areas of American politics: the debate over what is often disparagingly referred to as “welfare.”

Experts such as Mr. Levin argue that achieving near-universal use of broadband is likely to require a permanent subsidy to make the service available to low-income families. And the government will have to convince such households to subscribe to broadband by providing online services that are valuable to low-income families – such as health, education and employment – and helping them understand how to use the technology.

There is not much of that in Biden’s proposal for infrastructure. The White House newsletter says that permanent subsidies “Not a suitable long-term solution for consumers or taxpayers.”

Plus, subsidies don’t respond well. Only 36 percent of rural adults say the government should provide subsidies to help low-income Americans buy high-speed Internet at home. According to a 2017 Pew poll, this compares to 50 percent of urban residents and 43 percent of suburbanites.

In early May, the federal government launched a $ 3.2 billion interim program. offer a subsidy of $ 50 or $ 75 per month for low-income families to pay for broadband services. It expires when the money runs out, or six months after the pandemic is declared to end, whichever comes first.

If done forever, it could be a game changer for many American families. But such a subsidy can range from $ 8.4 billion to $ 12 billion per year or more for 14 million households.

The only source of ongoing help is the life line, which provides a subsidy of $ 9.25 per month for the purchase of communications services. But very few eligible families actually use it to buy Internet access; most use it to service mobile phones.

There are other ideas as well, such as demanding big tech companies that benefit enormously from online services. contribute to the cost of wiring a nation… Government programs that will benefit from getting all Americans online, such as Medicaid and Medicare, can also do their part.

“There are some paths forward, but first there must be some recognition that as a country we benefit from having everyone involved and that private market forces will not do that,” said Mr Levin. “I think we’re finally there. But we need leadership and a plan to get us to the home stretch. ”

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