As the infrastructure bill becomes law, what does it mean for broadband access?
Nov 15, 2021

As the infrastructure bill becomes law, what does it mean for broadband access?

The bill devotes funds to improve connectivity in rural areas and subsidize internet access for low-income families.

The $1 trillion infrastructure package goes beyond money for bridges and roads. It also includes around $65 billion for a different type of infrastructure: broadband internet.

Broadband was especially vital for many in this pandemic, with those who lacked access often unable to work or attend school remotely.

Christopher Mitchell is the director of the community broadband networks initiative at the nonprofit Institute for Local Self-Reliance. He said that while that $65 billion is going into lots of different programs, there are a few big themes. The following is an edited transcript of our conversation.

Christopher Mitchell: I think the key takeaways from the infrastructure bill are that we are going to see unprecedented investment in rural connectivity, and we have multiple years’ worth of subsidies for low-income families, where they don’t earn enough money to be able to afford the connection that may be already be available to them. You know, Baltimore is a city that we often refer to because pretty much every address has high-quality service from Comcast that’s available if people can afford to pay those bills. But when the pandemic hit, a heck of a lot of families, I think it was about half of the families, in the Baltimore schools did not have internet access at home, largely because of that cost issue. So this bill is really going to help with that.

Kimberly Adams: So how is this money going to move through the pipeline? And are cities and states ready for it?

Mitchell: I do not think most cities and states are very well prepared for it. And the money is going through different pipelines. So many states and many cities just have a lot of work to do to be able to spend this money wisely.

Christopher Mitchell (courtesy Mitchell)

Adams: Are there some examples of states and communities that have successful models for rolling out these types of programs?

Mitchell: One of the states that we’re very excited about is Vermont because they have developed a system in which a lot of the nearby communities can band together, to work together. And you can imagine that we already do this with water and sewer projects, where it doesn’t make sense for every town to build their own water system. Instead, they often work jointly. Vermont has made it easy for communities to do that for broadband. And then they work often with another local provider, might be a private company, it might be a cooperative, and that company will then use the infrastructure that is owned by the community to deliver services across it.

Adams: We’ve heard a lot about the labor shortages and supply chain delays. How do you think these factors will affect the implementation of some of these policies and programs?

Mitchell: Yes, the supply chains are going to be a major problem. And you can see that from the fact that many of the companies that already operate as an internet service provider, they have to put their orders in for equipment that they’re going to be receiving in 2023 and 2024. That is a very long lead time. And what that means is that if you have money that you’re receiving in December or January to build a network, then it is going to be many years until you can really complete that network, let alone start it. And that means that rather than it being four or five years to solve a lot of the rural needs, it may take seven or eight years, depending on how long this takes. Additionally, it could cost 20% or 30% more now than it would have if we had spent this money three or four years ago, but we just kept delaying these investments. And so now everyone’s rushing to put this stuff in. So there’s gonna be some challenges, but frankly, no one said it was gonna be easy.

Adams: This piece of legislation, like many, was full of compromises, so what got lost in the process?

Mitchell: The thing that got lost is the thing that’s probably closest to my heart, which is what do we do about the rest of us? So you know, you can imagine it’s on the order of 5 or 10% of people that live in the most rural areas, as many as a quarter of Americans qualify for the subsidy — that’s about 1 in 4 Americans. And the rest of us often have one or two high-quality options available. But the prices are high, and we would like to have better choices. And the [Joe] Biden administration made a big deal about fixing that problem and saying they were going to restructure the markets with smart investments. But a lot of people in Congress decided that they really didn’t want to take on the cable industry and the big telephone companies. So, I think most of us are going to see our bills continue to rise and not see new choices.

Related links: More insight from Kimberly Adams

Axios has a good breakdown of just how that $65 billion for broadband is supposed to be spent, including a program to improve digital literacy for seniors.

We also have a link to a 2020 report from the Government Accountability Office looking at how well previous efforts to expand broadband access have gone.

Like Mitchell said, access has certainly been expanding, but the agency says affordability and digital literacy are still barriers.

And local communities are already thinking about how to spend their forthcoming broadband money. A story in the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel recaps a “broadband solutions” event the paper co-hosted in which experts warned about the risks of worsening the digital divide if the new funds aren’t allocated carefully.

And, in a piece in North Carolina’s Raleigh News & Observer, one rural broadband advocate describes this as “a moment we’ve only ever dreamed of before.”

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