The Biden administration announced its long-awaited infrastructure plan in March. The bill encompasses one of the largest investments in American infrastructure ever proposed, including investments in conventional infrastructure like bridges, roads and ports, as well as in technology. One key investment in technology that Biden is betting on is broadband internet for all, for which he has set aside $100 billion.
The digital divide is a very real issue in the US. A Federal Communications Commission (FCC) report estimates that more than 20 million Americans don’t have access to broadband internet, defined as having download speeds of at least 25Mbps and upload speeds of at least 3Mbps. Others have estimated that the figure is closer to 40 million. But the digital divide is not just an issue of service availability, it is also an issue of price. Millions of Americans in urban and suburban areas can only afford mediocre services that do not enable the kinds of applications needed to fully participate in the economy of today. Others cannot afford service at all. Further, these struggles disproportionately affect communities of color, holding back their ability to access jobs, education, and government resources. Tribal lands have even slower speeds and limited access to services.
Given the multidimensional nature of the problem, the Biden administration has its work cut out for it. To close the digital divide, Biden must move beyond providing funds and begin crafting a strategy to expand internet access in rural communities where none is available as well as bring prices down in areas where services are currently too expensive.
To accomplish this generational leap in internet infrastructure, the government must avoid settling for easy deals with incumbent service providers. New players are offering internet services through new methods and the Biden administration should work alongside them to bring internet access and competition to new markets. Verizon, T-Mobile and AT&T are now all offering FWA home internet services that will boost competition in many markets, as well as expand broadband access to many rural communities that previously had no internet providers. While the limitations of wireless propagation may limit the potential for fixed wireless home internet to be an effective high-speed internet solution for some rural communities, the Biden administration should at least consider partnering with these providers in communities where wireless service would be both affordable and effective.
The Biden administration should also partner with municipalities that want to build out their own networks, providing grants to cover the high cost of entry. These funds will be vital for rural communities that lack services due to the high cost of infrastructure and low service revenues. In communities that do have a service, municipal networks can provide a low-price option that boosts competition or serves as an open network that internet service providers can then sell access to. In each of these cases, grants from the federal government will be the key to building out new networks and boosting competition.
In order to overcome the digital divide, the Biden administration will need to examine all available options and work with new actors in the industry, including municipalities and wireless network operators. Bringing more actors into the fold will boost competition, lower prices and expand services to communities that currently have none. This will help enable economic growth in communities that have been disproportionately left out of the economy of the 21st century and prepare the US economy for the demands of the future.