How important is broadband to the $1.2 trillion infrastructure plan?
Jul 23, 2021

How important is broadband to the $1.2 trillion infrastructure plan?

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Republicans and Democrats are still hammering out the bill's details, including how to divvy up $65 billion for expanding high-speed internet access.

Optimists in Washington, including President Joe Biden, hope debate on a $1.2 trillion infrastructure package could start as soon as Monday, just before the August recess.

Senate Republicans blocked a procedural vote to start that debate this week, pushing for more time to hammer out details. You’ve got the usual talk of roads and bridges, yes, but broadband is another key part of the bill — with $65 billion devoted to expanding high-speed internet access across the country. Details are starting to emerge about what form that might take.

It’s a topic for Quality Assurance, where we take a second look at a big tech story. John Hendel is a technology reporter at Politico, covering the blow-by-blow. The following is an edited transcript of our conversation.

John Hendel, wearing a blue collared shirt, smiles for his headshot.
John Hendel, tech reporter for Politico. (M. Scott Mahaskey/Politico)

John Hendel: I mean, this is kind of a wonky D.C. battle. But it’s been about how fast broadband should be. That’s been a key part of this from the get-go. The original plans you saw from many Democratic lawmakers would have pushed for very fast speeds: 100 megabits per second, download and upload. This new draft does show slightly more modest goals. Why this matters is what technology you use to try to fix the digital divide. Many Democrats would like the idea of fiber-optic cable lines laid down there. This would be future-proof, this would be good for decades. But that would also mean if you put these benchmarks in, wireless companies, some cable companies, satellite broadband companies like Elon Musk’s SpaceX, they might not be able to bid for the money in the same way. So you’ve seen a tense lobbying war over that.

Kimberly Adams: Past bills have tackled affordability by giving consumers subsidies through a [Federal Communications Commission] program. President Biden wants this bill, in particular, to make more structural changes. So can you talk about what the White House wants in terms of consumer subsidies playing into all of this?

Hendel: They are looking at this as a competition issue, and they want to find other ways to help with affordability. One option that they’ve also put out there, they think that there should be a broadband nutrition label, kind of standardizing the information around what you pay for your monthly service. Some of those ideas might still be in the mix with the bipartisan package we’re negotiating now. Nothing like a permanent subsidy of billions of dollars, but things that would help, be more transparent about broadband pricing.

Adams: What are still the significant points of disagreement between Republicans and Democrats on broadband?

Hendel: So I think you’re gonna see some progressives who might see the compromise deal and say, “This doesn’t do nearly enough. This doesn’t address issues like affordability in the way that it should. It doesn’t have a permanent subsidy to help households that might need it.” They’re going to be pushing for that, probably, when they see the final result. Meanwhile, I think you’re gonna see a lot of Republicans who ultimately, despite welcoming broadband help for the constituents, might still think that $65 billion is just too much money for this. “This could create waste, this could create duplication.” And Republicans have also worried about just coordinating the amount of broadband help that’s out there right now. You already have broadband money in some of the pandemic relief packages. You have broadband subsidies at the Department of Agriculture, at the FCC, at the Commerce Department. So I think that those are the notes you’re gonna keep hearing from the right on some of this: “How are we going to avoid misspending record-breaking amounts of money that’s going out the door?”

Adams: And while I’ve got you, and while we’re talking about tech and Congress, President Biden this week said he would nominate Jonathan Kanter to lead the Department of Justice’s antitrust division. We’ve been waiting on that appointment. What do we know about his views?

Hendel: Yeah, Jonathan Kanter is really interesting. He is definitely considered one of the more progressive voices on antitrust issues. There had been a big push to get him at the Department of Justice in this role because of that, and I think it shows that the White House has been really welcoming a broad range of progressive voices in some of these top positions. People have immediately compared him to Lina Khan, who is the new chair of the [Federal Trade Commission], where she has been very critical of the bigger companies like Amazon and others. So, I think people look at that. I think they look at the fact that President Biden has put Tim Wu on his National Economic Council, so I think Kanter’s just continuing that trend, and it’s something that people are watching very closely when trying to figure out who President Biden might name to fill some of the other outstanding seats that are out there. He still hasn’t named a permanent chair of the FCC, for instance, and there’s still some other key posts in the Commerce Department too that many people have been waiting on and I think are really curious to see what the White House might want for that.

Adams: And is his confirmation likely, do you think?

Hendel: You know, I think it’s likelier than not, mainly because you’ve seen Republicans and Democrats kind of share a certain scrutiny on some of these tech antitrust issues in the last year. Not completely. I mean, certainly, many Republicans would rather focus on what they would call bias and censorship from some of these tech platforms — which the platforms have denied. But I think there’s enough Republicans who have really been concerned about the size of the companies that you’re going to see some of them support Kanter, too. I think there’ll be questions about what his progressive philosophy might mean, but I think that we’ve seen bipartisan votes on other past progressive nominees, including Lina Khan, so that bodes well, I think, for him ultimately getting through.

Related links: More insight from Kimberly Adams

And since we were talking about just how fast high-speed should be, the Government Accountability Office put out a report this month arguing that the benchmark for minimum speeds isn’t fast enough for many small businesses. The FCC sets those benchmarks and hasn’t updated them since 2015.

Ars Technica dug into the fight over municipal broadband. In March, President Biden said that proposed money for broadband in an infrastructure deal should prioritize “broadband networks owned, operated by, or affiliated with local governments, non-profits, and co-operatives.” You can imagine private operators were not the least bit interested in having to compete with local governments for business, and Republicans have tried to ban the practice nationwide. That priority seems to have disappeared from the current broadband plan, but it’s a draft and negotiations are likely to continue through the weekend.

And Axios has a story about a Republican-led effort to make Big Tech pay for broadband expansion. Three Senate Republicans are pushing a bill called the Funding Affordable Internet with Reliable Contributions Act. If you drop the “Contributions Act” part, you have the acronym FAIR.

Members of Congress do like their acronym legislation.

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