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Building Better Broadband Underscores Joe Biden’s Top Policy Initiatives

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Photo of Joe Biden from August 2019 by Gage Skidmore used with permission

January 5, 2021 — The digital divide afflicting the United States has become even more apparent throughout the pandemic, repositioning the issue of universal broadband access to the forefront of many Washington policy agendas, including that of President-elect Joe Biden.

The Biden presidential campaign’s website early on included a plan for rural America that highlighted how the COVID-19 crisis deepened many of the challenges that were already confronting Americans, including “lack of access to health care, unreliable broadband, and the chronic under funding of public schools.”

The plan further states that “Americans everywhere need universal, reliable, affordable, and high-speed internet to do their jobs, participate equally in remote school learning and stay connected” and promises to “expand broadband, or wireless broadband via 5G, to every American.”

Biden’s top four priorities convey an urgent need for advanced infrastructure

Of the challenges facing the incoming administration of Biden and Vice President-elect Kamala Harris, it seems clear that universal broadband is critical to each of them.

Biden’s campaign website specifically lists universal broadband as a priority in bolstering economic recovery, fighting climate change, and advancing racial economic equity. Universal access to broadband internet also underscores  the fourth top policy initiative listed on the Biden campaign website, battling COVID-19, although the incoming administration fails to link broadband as a precondition for this priority.

As a presidential candidate, Biden called broadband a tool to put Americans to work during a visit to Hermantown, Minnesota.

The campaign’s plan for economic recovery specifically links the country’s financial recovery to mobilizing American work forces in the construction of  “modern, sustainable infrastructure” and “sustainable engines of growth,” connecting universal broadband to building a clean energy economy, addressing the climate crisis, and creating millions of “good-paying, union jobs.”

Much of the Biden administration’s plan for universal broadband is tied to climate change initiatives. Biden’s climate change priorities website calls for building clean energy grids powered by broadband internet to lay “a new foundation for sustainable growth.”

Biden has promised that as president, he will make bold investments in American industry and innovation to ensure the vitality of American manufacturing is not a thing of the past. One way the President-elect could achieve this goal is by adapting his administration’s policy priorities to recognize the centrality of universal broadband access and adoption to each of them.

Broadband recognized as central to rural progress

The Biden and Harris campaign has repeatedly invoked the desire to launch a wide-ranging infrastructure package to jump start economic recovery. Early on, the campaign called for billions in federal grants to help connect rural areas to the internet as part of its ambitions.

Biden’s plan for increasing rural connectivity specifically references spending $20 billion in expanding rural broadband infrastructure, tripling funding for Community Connect broadband grants to expand access, and reforming the Lifeline program, which subsidizes internet and phone services for low-income Americans. 

One way the President-elect could achieve this goal is by adapting his administration’s policy priorities to recognize the centrality of universal access and adoption to each of them.

Building better broadband underscores racial economic equity

Biden’s transition website recognizes that digital equity is at the core of achieving racial economic equity, a further priority of the administration. In his plan for racial equity, Biden pledges to invest $20 billion in digital infrastructure to support historically Black colleges and universities and other minority serving institutions.

Biden’s racial economic equity plan further calls for closing the digital divide at large, as the gulf between broadband internet haves-and-have nots has long impacted Black, Hispanic, tribal, and other historically marginalized households.

Biden’s racial economic equity plan directly ties a lack of proficiency in digital tech to having a hindrance on an individual’s opportunity for economic mobility.

Historically marginalized groups are less likely to have access to broadband internet. While 79 percent of white households have broadband internet, only 66 percent of Black households and 61 percent of Hispanic households do, according to research from the Pew Research Center. Further, only 52 percent of Native Americans who live on tribal land have a home broadband subscription.

Biden’s plan claims it will ensure that U.S. infrastructure investments work to address disparities in access to utilities such as clean water, accessible transportation, connectivity to high-speed internet, and more, “which often occur along lines of race and class.”

The “digital divide needs to be closed everywhere, from lower-income urban schools to rural America, to many older Americans as well as those living on tribal lands,” reads the plan. Biden’s racial economic equity plan claims marginalized groups will further benefit from the $20 billion he plans to invest in broadband infrastructure in rural America.

Better broadband is necessary in fighting COVID-19 and preparing for future pandemics

Research finding that American’s with high-speed internet were less likely to leave their homes after shelter-in-place orders went into effect, recently published by the National Bureau of Economic Research, reveals that universal access is at the core of battling COVID-19.

Researchers discovered that income is correlated with differences in the ability to stay at home, and further, that the unequal diffusion of high-speed internet in homes across regions drives much of the observed effect of income inequality.

The combination of having both high income and high-speed Internet appears to be the biggest driver of one’s propensity to stay at home. Therefore, the digital divide explains much about inequalities role in people’s ability to self-isolate.

So, what exactly is required to “Build Back Better”?

Based on the priorities listed on Biden’s transition website, efforts to construct a universal broadband internet infrastructure, train digital work forces of the future, and fuel the provision of resources and tools to encourage universal adoption of broadband, should be prime concerns of the president-to-be.

‘Universal broadband’ mentioned, but more specifics lacking

Still, the few mentions of broadband on the Biden-Harris transition website are largely lumped in with infrastructure generally and environmental action. Indeed, mention of the phrase “universal broadband” on Biden’s transition website ends there.

The Biden administration has made clear that its main priority is battling the ongoing coronavirus pandemic. Yet, the transition team’s website fails to recognize the significance of universal broadband to achieving this goal.

Although an $80 billion broadband infrastructure packages was originally proposed in the House Democrat’s COVID-19 relief bill, rhetoric surrounding a large infrastructure package of the sort has largely died down since the onslaught of the pandemic

Will ‘universal broadband’ claims amount to anything?

While the Biden administration has utilized the phrase ‘universal broadband’ in multiple policy plans and on more than one occasion, no concrete policy proposals have followed.

Critics have argued that, so far, Biden’s slim “universal broadband” statements differ little from outgoing President Donald Trump’s policies.

Based on a lack of tangible policy initiatives, it would be astute to remain cautiously optimistic about the efficacy of the Biden administration’s broadband plan.

Director of the community broadband networks initiative at the Institute for Local Self-Reliance Christopher Mitchell, displayed this cautious optimism in an interview with State Scoop, saying though the proposed policies are somewhat vague, “that broadband was mentioned in so many capacities is encouraging.”

“It wasn’t like there was just a section where it said ‘broadband is important,’” Mitchell said, “but there was a discussion about broadband’s role throughout — in terms of rural economic development, but also schools, and racial inequity. It takes seriously how important broadband is.”

Biden made more specific pledges in a series of meetings with the supporters of Democratic Party primary opponent Senator Bernie Sanders, D-Vermont, in July. During that time, Biden seemed to be in favor of giving federal money to support municipal broadband initiatives.

At the time, Biden restated his support for removing barriers to municipally-owned broadband networks, of which there are more than 331 in the U.S. today. About 22 states have outlawed municipal broadband outright, leaving residents with fewer alternatives to corporate internet service providers, which can create broadband “deserts,” or areas lacking in capacity.

Yet, the recommendations from the task force aren’t direct, actionable plans issued by Biden’s campaign.

Infrastructure

NTIA’s Effort to Dispense Broadband Funds to Municipalities Is Not Without Obstacles

The NTIA’s notice of funding opportunity stops short of explicitly endorsing municipal broadband as the preferred model.

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Photo of Alan Davidson (left) and Drew Clark from Mountain Connect

WASHINGTON, June 9, 2022 – Though the head of the National Telecommunications and Information Administration says he looks to “pressure” states with restrictive laws on municipal broadband builds to use infrastructure money for that end, some aren’t convinced that the federal government can get that deep into state affairs.

The “NTIA lacks the authority to require states that have adopted laws restricting municipal broadband systems to waive or otherwise disregard these state restrictions,” Randolph May, president of the Free State Foundation, told Broadband Breakfast.

“Perhaps NTIA can encourage (strongly or otherwise) states to do so, but it can’t condition their receipt of BEAD grants on states’ refusal to do so,” May added.

The comments come after NTIA administrator Alan Davidson said during Broadband Breakfast event in April that his office is looking to pressure some states to work around their laws to allow the money to go toward municipal broadband builds.

NTIA is  entrusted with handing out to the states $42.5 billion from the Infrastructure, Investment and Jobs Act.

Davidson added during a fireside chat with Broadband Breakfast Editor and Publisher Drew Clark at the Mountain Connect conference in May that the success of the Broadband Equity, Access and Deployment program will depend on getting “every state and territory on board.”

“I do think there will be a lot of deep directions to states,” he said about how the NTIA will administer the BEAD program.

BEAD NOFO bars states from rejecting municipalities

On municipal broadband, Davidson said that the BEAD’s notice of funding opportunity is explicit in that it does not allow eligible entities to not consider public provider types out of hand.

“Eligible Entities may not exclude cooperatives, nonprofit organizations, public-private partnerships, private companies, public or private utilities, public utility districts, or local governments (‘potential providers’) from eligibility for grant funds,” the NOFO reads.

“We are doing all we can to lean into the idea that we believe there is going to be a variety of approaches that communities play a huge role here,” Davidson said in the exchange with Clark. “You know states have their laws, we are going to try and do all we can under the law to pressure states, and to make sure that states are transparent where they are not able to meet them.”

The BEAD NOFO explicitly points to municipal broadband as broadband providers that should be utilized – asserting that eligible entities need to demonstrate the steps they have taken to “ensure the participation of non-traditional broadband providers,” and listing municipalities as one such entity.

The view on municipal broadband

Depending upon the party in the White House, municipal broadband is often considered a best practice by the Federal Communications Commission. Yet it has been outlawed or circumscribed in more than a dozen states.

Although the NOFO stops short of explicitly endorsing municipal broadband as a preferred model – it merely says that eligible entities cannot reject municipal builds without consideration – earlier versions of White House statements on broadband infrastructure explicitly favored granting funds to municipal entities.

The Telecommunications Act of 1996 was enacted “to let any communications business compete in any market against any other.” In doing so, the act mandated that “No State or local statute or regulation, or other State or local legal requirement, may prohibit or have the effect of prohibiting the ability of any entity to provide any interstate or intrastate telecommunications service.”

The FCC understood this clause to include state subdivisions within the operational definition of the word, “entity.”

In Nixon v. Missouri Municipal League, however, the Supreme Court of the United States ruled in 2004 against a municipal broadband service that argued that Missouri’s attempts to stifle its work violated the Telecommunications Act of 1996.

The court held that a state’s own subdivisions did not constitute the “entities” protected in the Telecommunications Act. This decision disregarded the FCC’s framework and opened the door to challenges to municipal broadband efforts. Missouri was not the last state to restrict municipal broadband.

Great variety of municipal broadband restrictions

Not all states’ legislation designed to curb municipal networks looks the same, however. States with such legislation exist on a sliding scale.

Some states, such as Nebraska, ban public entities outright from providing broadband services on a retail or wholesale level. South Carolina presents so many obstacles to municipal broadband that such efforts are usually far too expensive or unwieldy to pursue.

The legislators that push these bans often argue that private internet providers are better equipped to provide these services to consumers, and that municipal efforts are a waste of taxpayer money. Advocates for this type of legislation also argue that municipal networks are inherently anticompetitive – as municipalities would compete with the private industry in addition to regulating it – in effect serving as both referee and player in the space.

A limited rollback of restrictions

Though some states have rolled back some restrictions in recent years – namely Arkansas and Washington – municipal efforts are still outright banned or heavily discouraged in 17 states.

In Arkansas, the shift appeared to come as a response to the Covid-19 pandemic. Senate Bill 74 was sponsored by Republican Arkansas State Sen. Ricky Hill and was signed into law by Republican Gov. Asa Hutchinson in February of 2021.

The bill recognized broadband as “necessities” and that citizens who lack broadband “also lack access to healthcare services, education services, and other essential services.” The bill amended the Telecommunication Regulatory Reform Act of 2013 to allow municipal entities to provide broadband services to consumers.

Data gathered prior to the pandemic and published in the International Journal of Digital Economy, Data Sciences, and New Media argues that restrictions on state and municipal broadband decreases broadband penetration by 1-2 percentage points and 3 percentage points, respectively.

“These results make a strong argument that state broadband policies are having a measurable impact on broadband diffusion across the U.S., including in rural areas,” the study’s authors concluded.

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Net Neutrality

Biden Signs Executive Order on Net Neutrality, Broadband Pricing Policy and Big Tech Merger Scrutiny

Executive order would kickoff new antitrust and net neutrality regulations.

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Photo of Joe Biden in July 2021 from the South China Morning Press

July 9, 2021—President Joe Biden on Friday announced his intent to sign an executive order addressing an array of 72 initiatives, including net neutrality, and generally taking aim at big telecom and tech companies to address competition in the economy.

The White House released a fact sheet on the goals and the actions to be taken to achieve them.

The order would, among other things, task the Federal Communications Commission with reinstituting pre-Trump administration net neutrality rules.

Net neutrality refers to the concept that broadband providers must not block or throttle the content that consumers seek to access on the internet, or provide preferential access to content by business partners.

Under former President Barack Obama, the FCC in February 2015 enacted net neutrality rules promoting what his administration called “the open, fair, and free internet as we know it today.”

Broadband pricing policy

Biden’s order also tackled broadband policy and the digital divide more broadly.

It pointed to the 200 million Americans that live in regions with only one or two internet service providers and stated that this contributes to inflated internet service prices up to five times higher than in areas with more than two ISPs.

The order also condemned relationships between landlords and broadband providers that block new providers from expanding or improving broadband infrastructure to unserved and underserved areas, and it urged the FCC to enact rules to ban such deals and relationships.

To improve price transparency, Biden also urged the FCC to implement a “Broadband Nutrition Label” and require that all broadband providers report their service plans and rates to the FCC for evaluation.

Additionally, the plan directed the FCC to address unreasonably high, early termination fees enacted by broadband providers. The Biden administration argues that these fees are often in place only to discourage consumers from switching to what may be a superior internet service.

Big tech a target, too

In addition to broadband policy, the order would also take aim at data collection and mergers by big tech companies. The factsheet specifically mentioned that the order would tackle “kill acquisitions” designed to stifle perceived competitive threats to tech companies and pointed out that federal regulatory bodies have not done enough to prevent these mergers.

The administration would adopt a policy to greater scrutinize potential mergers, according to the White House fact sheet.

Additionally, the administration also condemned data collection policies by big tech companies, pointing to business models completely dependent on harvesting of sensitive consumer data. To address this, he tasked the Federal Trade Commission to draft new rules on consumer surveillance and data collection.

Net neutrality advocate at the FCC

FCC Acting Chairwoman Jessica Rosenworcel has been a longtime advocate for strong net neutrality laws. Though her critics have argued that there have been precious few examples of companies throttling their consumers internet speed, Rosenworcel has supported initiatives that would classify internet service providers as “common carriers,” and would forbid them from interfering in a user’s internet speed or the content they view.

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Infrastructure

Vice President Kamala Harris Compares Administration’s Broadband Effort to Rural Electrification

The Biden administration aims to support broadband as the New Deal measure provided electricity in isolated rural areas.

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Screenshot from the White House listening session on broadband

May 24, 2021 – Highlighting the importance of broadband to the president, Vice President Kamala Harris on Monday compared the Rural Electrification Act of 1936 to what the Biden administration aims to do with expanding internet infrastructure.

Harris said that the New Deal-era measure, signed by President Franklin Roosevelt almost exactly 85 years ago on May 20, 1936, provided federal support for the installation of electrical distribution systems for isolated rural areas of the United States.

It was necessary, she said, because private power companies were unwilling or unable to create an energy infrastructure at a reasonable cost.

“We must act in the same way,” she said.

Six panelists shared their experiences with broadband infrastructure at the administration event. The discussion emphasized the vitality and the need for reliable connectivity for telehealth, remote working, and small business having access to betters speeds in order to survive.

Breaking down barriers to broadband

Harris explained the three barriers to broadband infrastructure that the Biden-Harris Administration aims to overcome. These are the lack of support in rural and indigenous areas, the lack of competition and affordability, and broadband equity. Equity, she said, included both racial and income disparities with broadband.

One noteworthy panelist was Kimberly Vasquez, a student-advocate from Baltimore. She created Students Organizing a Multicultural and Open Society, a program that seeks to provide connectivity for communities suffering from the pandemic.

Vasquez’ family struggled to make decisions allowing her to get better internet connectivity in order to get an education, versus being able to put food on the table.

Harris said she was excited by Vasquez’ initiative and said she sympathized with her struggles. Harris asked questions to elicit answers about the how difficult it is to obtain good quality internet connectivity during the pandemic.

“We know what we need to do,” Harris said. She said the event proved the fundamental nature of broadband infrastructure. “This is doable.”

Harris concluded by saying that internet connectivity is both a civil rights and economic issue. It must be tackled to increase competition and advancement in all areas of the country.

The White House listening session is available on YouTube.

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