Although Republicans recoiled when President Joe Biden unveiled his sweeping infrastructure plan in March, a bipartisan group of senators has thrown its support behind one of the less conventional ideas in the package: making a massive investment in broadband networks.
But as crucial as these networks are to the 21st century economy, it’s not just the amount Congress spends that matters. It’s making sure the money is spent the right way. And there’s a split among lawmakers over whether to just help telecom companies extend broadband to the 21 million or more Americans with no access to it — largely but not exclusively in rural and remote areas — or to also upgrade areas with substandard service.
At issue too is how to provide broadband to the millions of Americans who can’t afford it. What’s the point in subsidizing the construction of more extensive networks if they’re priced too high for a sizable portion of the population?
It comes down to a question of priorities. Here’s one all taxpayers should embrace: Make sure that the new networks built with these dollars won’t grow quickly obsolete. Networks that are largely based on fiber optics, including modern cable TV, fiber-to-the-premises and “small cell” wireless services, can add speed and capacity over time without requiring a major overhaul; that should be the standard Congress adopts.
The demand for speed and capacity has grown steadily, and there’s no reason to think it won’t continue to do so. In fact, new online services are emerging that could vastly increase the need for high-capacity uploads as well as downloads. It would be foolish to make a costly investment in networks today that need to be replaced within the decade.
Granted, it may not be practical to serve some remote or sparsely populated areas with the same kind of network as in cities and suburbs. But even those networks should be built in a way that the initial speeds offered are a floor, not a ceiling.
As important as it is to bring broadband service to areas that have none, we can’t ignore the parts of the country stuck with inadequate networks built for the days before widespread video streaming, videoconferencing, telemedicine and virtual offices. State and local governments understand the particular needs of their constituents better than Congress does; they should be granted the flexibility to use some of their federal broadband dollars to support upgrades of slower networks in their communities.
Incumbent cable and phone companies argue that it’s a poor use of tax dollars to invest in areas that already have broadband, even if it’s a lesser version. But just as new broadband services can be a source of economic growth, so can outdated networks be an impediment, limiting innovation and services by local businesses and entrepreneurs. And by taking steps to invite competitors into those markets, state and local governments could help hold down broadband prices while increasing investment. That’s what happened when Google rolled out its fiber-based service, which is available in 11 metropolitan areas.
More competition will also help with the third top priority, affordability. But that’s just part of the answer. Another piece is to make sure that new networks built with federal help offer discounted service to the low-income consumers in their communities. And for communities with existing networks, there needs to be a permanent subsidy program for low-income households.
These details, along with the amount of money allotted for broadband investments, are expected to be hammered out in the next few weeks as the Senate tries to pass an infrastructure bill. The $65 billion proposed for broadband in the bipartisan framework is a good starting point. But it needs to be spent the right way.