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Major Change on the Horizon? Explaining the Affordable, Accessible Internet for All Act

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Photo of House Majority Whip James Clyburn from March 2012 by the Office of the House Speaker

December 2, 2020 – As House GOP leaders ask the Government Accountability Office to audit the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) ReConnect program because of concerns federal funds are being used to “overbuild,” Democratic leaders in the House and Senate have filed legislation that aims to build broadband infrastructure on a national-scale.

The Accessible, Affordable Internet for All Act is a bill that harkens back to when the federal government – through FDR’s Rural Electrification Administration, established in 1935, and the Rural Electrification Act, passed by Congress in 1936 – invested in local cooperatives and brought electricity to the abundance of Americans still living in candle-lit homes without electrically-powered refrigerators.

The proposed legislation may well frame the Democratic agenda on broadband moving forward, as the Biden administration enters the White House in January. It’s a bold bill that has garnered the support of a who’s-who of broadband experts and advocacy organizations from Public Knowledge, the National Consumer Law Center and New America Foundation’s Open Technology Institute to the Benton Institute for Broadband and Society, the Electronic Frontier Foundation, and the National Digital Inclusion Alliance.

Breaking it Down

There’s a lot to unpack in this bill, which is why we are publishing a series of posts exploring the major sections contained in the proposed legislation. This first installment is the 30,000-foot view. Forthcoming posts will examine the legislative details where the devil – or the better angels – can be found.

Broadly, the Accessible, Affordable Internet for All Act calls for a $100 billion investment to build high-speed broadband infrastructure that targets unserved and underserved parts of the country. It aims to ensure that every household has affordable and reliable access to online education, telemedicine, remote work, and other business opportunities in which Internet connectivity can no longer be considered a mere luxury, but a necessity.

In the U.S. House of Representatives, the legislation, which has already passed in the House, is being led by House Majority Whip James E. Clyburn (D-SC) and members of the House Rural Broadband Task Force. The Senate version of the bill was filed in July by U.S. Senator Amy Klobuchar (D-MN), co-chair of the Senate Broadband Caucus, and is being co-sponsored by Senators Brian Schatz (D-HI), Mark R. Warner (D-VA), Ed Markey (D-MA), Cory Booker (D-NJ), Elizabeth Warren (D-MA), Catherine Cortez Masto (D-NV), Jacky Rosen (D-NV), and Vice President-Elect Kamala Harris (D-CA).

“When we invest in broadband infrastructure, we invest in opportunity for every American,” Klobuchar said when the bill was filed. “In 2020, we should be able to bring high-speed [I]nternet to every family in America — regardless of their zip code — and this legislation is a critical step to help bridge the digital divide once and for all.”

As has become apparent since the pandemic lockdown last spring, the “underserved (and unserved) communities” in America comprise a significant portion of the U.S. population. The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) estimates there are 18.3 million Americans who lack access to fixed broadband in the United States that meets minimum Internet access speed of 25/3 Megabits per second (Mbps). However, as we have reported numerous times here and discussed in various podcasts, the FCC maps almost certainly overstate actual broadband coverage. Some studies indicate the FCC is undercounting the number of people in the U.S. without fixed broadband access and that there may be as many as 41 million people without access.

The Accessible, Affordable Internet for All Act proposes to address the digital divide and encourage universal broadband access by:

  • Allocating $80 billion to deploy high-speed broadband infrastructure across the nation.
  • Earmarking $5 billion for low-interest financing of broadband deployment through a new secured loan program.
  • Establishing a new office within the National Telecommunications and Information Administration to ensure efficient use of federal money.

It aims to ensure affordability by:

  • Requiring an affordable option for Internet service plans offered on the newly-built infrastructure.
  • Providing a $50 monthly subsidy for low-income consumers.
  • Directing the FCC to collect and publicize data on prices charged for broadband service throughout the country.

The bill looks to promote adoption by:

  • Providing over $1 billion to establish grant programs for states to close gaps in broadband adoption, as well as digital inclusion projects for organizations and local communities to implement.
  • Including $5 billion to enable students without Internet at home to participate in remote learning.
  • Authorizing funding for Wi-Fi on school buses so students can stay connected, especially in rural areas where longer bus rides are common.

A Wealth of Support, But No Guarantee

Joining a chorus of expert voices in support of the bill, Gigi Sohn – Distinguished Fellow at the Georgetown Law Institute for Technology Law & Policy, former senior adviser to FCC chairman Tom Wheeler, and one of a handful of names floated as a possible new FCC chair in the Biden administration – lauded the proposed legislation:

The Senate version of the Accessible, Affordable Internet for All Act includes all of the critical provisions of the House version, but goes even further to address this country’s gaping digital divide. Like the House bill, it addresses the twin problems of broadband affordability and lack of network infrastructure and seeks to promote competition in a consolidated market by preferencing open access networks and repealing state laws that prohibit communities from building their own broadband networks. In addition, the Senate bill would expand the FCC’s Rural Health Care program to provide funding for telehealth programs in urban as well as rural areas, and would create a fund to ensure that higher education students in need have access to robust broadband during the COVID-19 pandemic. The pandemic has laid bare the need for every American to have robust, high speed broadband Internet access at home … It is long past time for Congress to act. Thanks to Senator Klobuchar and her Senate colleagues for co-sponsoring this vital legislation. The Senate should pass this bill without delay.

Prospects for passage of the bill, however, hinges on the outcome of the U.S. Senate run-off races in Georgia, as was noted in an op-ed published in the Albany Herald last week, co-authored by Clyburn and Georgia Congressman Sanford Bishop. “The votes of Georgians on Jan. 5 will determine whether 1 million Georgians and millions more across America are swiftly connected to the [I]nternet so they can participate fully in 21st-century commerce, health care, and education,” they wrote.

If the Democrats prevail in Georgia, it would tip the scales of power in the U.S. Senate where, Clyburn and Bishop lament, “Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, assisted by Sens. David Perdue and Kelly Loeffler, has buried the legislation in his graveyard.”

In the second installment of this series, we will dive into the “Title I – Digital Equity” section of the Accessible, Affordable Internet for All Act.

Editor’s Note: This piece was authored by Sean Gonsalves, a senior reporter, editor and researcher for the Institute for Local Self Reliance’s Community Broadband Network Initiative. Originally published on MuniNetworks.org, the piece is part of a collaborative reporting effort between Broadband Breakfast and the Community Broadband Networks program at ILSR.

Sean Gonsalves is a longtime former reporter, columnist, and news editor with the Cape Cod Times. He is also a former nationally syndicated columnist in 22 newspapers, including the Oakland Tribune, Kansas City Star and Seattle Post-Intelligencer. His work has also appeared in the Boston Globe, USA Today, the Washington Post and the International Herald-Tribune. An award-winning newspaper reporter and columnist, Sean also has extensive experience in both television and radio. Sean has made appearances on WGBH’s “Greater Boston” TV show with Emily Rooney and was a frequent guest on New England Cable News (NECN), commentating on a variety of Cape Cod tourist attractions. He left print journalism in 2014 to work as a senior communication consultant for Regan Communications and Pierce-Cote, advising a variety of business, non-profit and government agency clients on communication strategy. In October 2020, Sean joined the Institute for Local Self Reliance staff as a senior reporter, editor and researcher for ILSR’s Community Broadband Network Initiative.

Digital Inclusion

Virt Seeks To Serve As The Hub To Find And Join Virtual Events

Launched last week, virt.com hopes to take advantage of the rise in virtual events by crowdsourcing them in one place.

Tim White

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Photo of GHS co-founder Victor Zonana, left, from Global Health New Zealand

April 13, 2021 – Global Health Strategies, the global advocacy group focused on health and policy, last week launched Virt.com, a new open-source media platform that crowdsources virtual events on various issues.

Those “issue channels” include health, Covid-19, climate and environment, gender, food and nutrition and human rights. It relies on users in different regions posting about upcoming events in those categories.

The launch last week coincided with a new ad campaign called Unmutetheworld, focused on digital equity around the world with the belief that internet access is a human right. It includes partnering with groups like National Digital Inclusion Alliance and grassroots organizations in many different countries.

“The pandemic has transformed our lives. The way we connect, the way we celebrate, the way we mourn, the way we work, access healthcare and learn, has changed,” GHS CEO David Gold said in an interview. “Broadband allows us to connect virtually even during the pandemic, but so many people don’t have access to the internet, they cannot connect, and we have to change that,” he said.

Gold described Virt as a way to connect people globally to meaningful conversations about health, science, policy, technology, among other topics. “We have a window of opportunity right now with the pandemic to really change. Despite all the terrible effects of COVID-19, we have this moment in time to make the case for big investments,” he said.

Gold highlighted the work of GHS and the Unmutetheworld campaign to connect people across different nations. “Broadband access comes to the heart of economic development, we have to take that momentum in the U.S. and expand it around the world,” he said.

Broadband is becoming increasingly more important, with more people working, schooling, or using health services virtually than ever before due to the pandemic.

Broadband central to digital activities

“Broadband used to be a ‘nice to have,’ now it is a ‘must have,’” Angela Siefer, executive director at NDIA, said in an interview. “Twenty years ago, we were worried about having enough computers in a classroom and lucky that one of them connected to the internet, but that has changed now, and we need to keep up with the technology. It permeates our whole lives,” she said.

President Joe Biden recently announced a new $2.3-trillion infrastructure proposal called the American Jobs Plan, which includes $100 billion for broadband programs over eight years. Congress has also recently introduced legislation on broadband initiatives, including $100 billion as part of the Leading Infrastructure for Tomorrow’s America Act, or LIFT America Act, sponsored by the Democratic delegation on the House Energy and Commerce Committee.

“We are excited about the potential of these government initiatives, not just for funding deployment, but also to address affordability, digital literacy skills and devices,” Siefer said. “We’ve never had this much awareness about broadband issues. We’re seeing real ideas being put into action.”

Siefer also mentioned state-level efforts to expand broadband, including recent legislation in New York and Maryland. Maryland plans to spend $300 million of federal funding from the American Rescue Plan on broadband programs, including infrastructure, subsidies for fees and devices, and grants for municipal broadband. New York state recently announced the 2022 fiscal year budget including a $300 billion infrastructure package that contains broadband subsidies for low-income residents and an emergency fund to provide economically-disadvantaged students with free internet access.

“We’re seeing a shift to address adoption and affordability at both the state and federal level, where previously we only saw discussion of availability,” Siefer said. “It’s not just about unserved and underserved areas when it comes to digital equity, because the infrastructure might be there, but people are not participating in broadband for a variety of reasons,” she said. “Affordability and digital literacy lock people out. New programs aim to solve that problem and get people connected.”

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Digital Inclusion

Starry and Non-Profit PCs for People Seek Affordable Connectivity, Affordable Devices and Digital Literacy

Benjamin Kahn

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Photo of Starry Senior Vice President Virginia Adams from Public Knowledge

March 19, 2021—Broadband provider Starry Inc. and the non-profit group PCs for People launched a joint effort aimed at deploying affordable, robust, broadband coverage alongside discounted computer hardware to families living in public housing in Denver, Colorado.

Starry, a fixed wireless broadband provider based in Boston, Massachusetts, operates in 25 states, including Colorado. PCs for people attempts to improve digital inclusion by helping low-come communities secure low-cost internet access and computers.

The two organizations announced a partnership Tuesday to provide subscribers to Starry’s Connect service a $25 coupon that can be redeemed during the purchase of a computing device from PCs for People.

A study published by Pew Research in 2019 stated that 10 percent of Americans do not use the internet. More than half of that demographic stated that they did not use the internet because securing a connection was too difficult or the cost of doing so was prohibitive.

The COVID-19 pandemic has exacerbated the issue because students and others who utilized internet through schools or libraries were likely unable to access it during parts of the pandemic.

“In order to truly achieve digital equity and inclusion across our communities, we must bring together three critical components: Affordable connectivity, affordable devices and digital literacy,” said Virginia Lan Abrams, senior vice president of government affairs and strategic advancement for Starry.

Abrams said that the joint venture will be a step towards shortening the digital divide. Without affordable connectivity, affordable devices and digital literacy, the internet has less value to low-income households, she said.

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Digital Inclusion

California Tech Fund Wants to Use Public Private Partnerships to Close Digital Divide

Derek Shumway

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Photo of Sunne Wright McPeak

March 8, 2021 – The California Emerging Technology Fund, a nonprofit foundation focused on digital equity in the state, called on internet service providers and business leaders to form public-private partnerships to close the digital divide under President Joe Biden.

“America can close the Digital Divide in the first term of the Biden Administration if the federal government can encourage Internet Service Providers (ISPs) through strategic investments to build broadband infrastructure in remote rural communities, including Tribal Land communities and improve woefully inadequate networks in high-poverty, densely populated urban neighborhoods,” said CETF CEO Sunne Wright McPeak.

“It is essential that business leaders and major employers support cost-effective solutions and sincere public-private partnerships that require ISPs to step up or step aside,” she said.

CETF CEO McPeak participated in the Broadband Breakfast Live Online ‘Champions of Broadband’ series. See “From the View of the California Emerging Technology Fund, Presidential Leadership Needed on Broadband,” Broadband Breakfast, October 16, 2020

CETF recommends the findings in the U.S. Council on Competitiveness Report, Competing in the Next Economy, which calls for authorizing a federal investment on the order of $100 billion for both broadband deployment and adoption, including digital skills development.

CETF said it commends the Business Roundtable for recognizing the immediate imperative to close the digital divide, which has been exposed by the pandemic as a digital cliff, with families falling off into deeper poverty and greater isolation.

Immediate investment by the federal government in partnership with states will not only address the digital disparities which are rooted in systemic racism, but will also provide a big stimulus to jumpstart economic recovery and will result in significant increases to gross domestic product and relative global economic productivity, the organization said.

However, the federal government should focus on investing its limited resources to support sustainable solutions, the CETF said, urging the Business Roundtable to go further in its call to action to seek “sincere public-private partnerships” instead of providing subsidies to ISPs.

In addition to the call to action, CETF is releasing the Digital Equity Bill of Rights, which describes principles and values developed over 15 years of collaborating with top national and state leaders in government, coupled with on-the-ground partnerships with regional, local and school leaders, civic organizations, business leaders, and several hundred community-based organizations.

CETF policy recommendations also are included in the California Broadband for All Action Plan, which emerged from an executive order by Governor Gavin Newsom to expand high-speed Internet deployment and adoption.

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