Could Biden’s internet infrastructure plan be a “national highway system in the information age”?

For decades, lawmakers, policy makers and consumers have denounced a “digital divide” that has left parts of the country with spotty internet service.

The $ 65 billion earmarked for broadband expansion as part of the Biden administration’s $ 1,000 billion infrastructure bill could change all that with improved internet services for rural areas, families at home. low income and tribal communities. It gives defenders what they have long wanted: money to build Internet infrastructure in areas with no access and subsidies to Americans who cannot afford high-speed Internet service.

The devil, of course, is in the details. Experts who spoke to MarketWatch noted that the funding will need to be used properly in the years to come, but any national plan is welcome after years of inaction.

“We haven’t had a major infrastructure upgrade in the 30 years since the Cold War. Overall it’s a good start, ”Dr. Robert Spalding – a retired US Air Force Brigadier General who, as Senior Director of Strategy for the White House National Security Council , wrote a 2017 report on the potential of 5G on telecommunications and IT infrastructure – said MarketWatch.

See Also: America’s Opportunity Begins With Internet Fixing, Says Social Investing Pioneer

“This is an opportunity to create an Eisenhower National Highway System for the Information Age,” said Spalding, referring to President Dwight Eisenhower’s Federal-Aid Highway Act of 1956 which inaugurated an interstate highway system.

Previous investments in science and technology, he said, have led to economic prosperity, citing the space race, computing, satellites and the origins of the Internet. Not investing properly for all Americans, he warned, would put the United States at a great disadvantage. actor in the field of information.

State subsidies and subsidies to low-income households

The implications of a national broadband network in the United States go far beyond equal access. It highlights the need for high-speed internet in the era of COVID-19, which has forced millions of Americans to work, learn and shop from home; reshaped the health care industry; and moved most businesses to a hybrid desktop model and digital transformation.

“It will truly bring our economy into the 21st century,” Assistant Commerce Secretary Don Graves said of the landmark legislation. President Joe Biden is expected to sign the bipartisan bill – 19 Senate Republicans and 13 House Republicans voted for – Monday.

In a Zoom briefing on Wednesday, Graves said 30 million Americans still lack access to reliable broadband. Senior Commerce Department officials have repeatedly said the agency has learned from similar programs on how best to fund and implement grants nationwide, as well as appropriate veterinary service providers.

It won’t be easy. Eisenhower’s road plan was overseen by the federal government; the broadband plan will be implemented through a mosaic grant recipients overseen by individual states and territories. Two key funding elements of the $ 65 billion package stand out: A significant portion, $ 42.45 billion, will be allocated by the Commerce Department in the form of state grants for broadband projects, which can range from network deployment to data collection to determine areas that need it.

Read more: How the $ 65 billion in broadband spending on the infrastructure bill will be distributed

The broadband plan, which Biden originally valued at $ 100 billion, would help home internet providers like AT&T Inc. T,
Comcast Corp. CMCSA,
and Charter Communications Inc. CHTR,
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with billions of dollars in subsidies that states can distribute to extend their networks to households that do not have broadband service. This has raised questions among some consumer advocates about the wisdom and effectiveness of paying telecom operators to extend coverage in areas they have historically underserved.

Another large tranche, $ 14.2 billion, will go to the Federal Communications Commission to establish an affordable connectivity program, an extension and overhaul of the Emergency Broadband Benefit (EBB) to provide vouchers of $ 30 per month to Low-income Americans to pay for the Internet. service. EBB, which is essentially being replaced, was offering $ 50 per month, but reaching fewer people.

Over a quarter (27%) of adults living in households earning less than $ 30,000 per year are smartphone-only internet users, which means they do not have high-speed internet at home. house, according to a Pew Research study. Conversely, among adults earning more than $ 100,000 per year, 93% have broadband access at home, as well as devices such as a laptop, tablet or smartphone.

Read more: How the pandemic revealed the need to expand broadband in the United States at prices families can afford

According to the FCC, some 14 million Americans live without any access to the Internet and 25 million without faster broadband, which hinders their access to education, employment opportunities and health care.

The $ 3.2 billion EBB program adopted this year has helped families and households struggling to afford internet service during the COVID-19 pandemic. So far, more than 7.5 million people have activated broadband service with the help of the program, according to Nathan Johnson, co-CEO of TruConnect, a self-proclaimed wireless lifeline provider.

“There was a misconception that these were gifts and gifts. But COVID has made it clear that [broadband improvements] improve the functioning of the infrastructure of the US economy, ”Johnson told MarketWatch. “It has an impact on education, distance training, telehealth, working from home.”

The challenges of creating a level playing field

Equally important, the $ 65 billion broadband plan could potentially reshape equal access to digital educational resources and create a level playing field for children from diverse and disadvantaged backgrounds, adds Michal Brokowski, CEO of Brainly. , an ed-tech platform with 350 million users worldwide. , including 30 million in the United States

Perhaps the most important aspect of the bill requires low latency for underserved communities, Allen Drennan, director of Lumicadem, a learning management system for electronic technologies and video streaming, told MarketWatch. . The term refers to latency for things like live streaming and video conferencing, where there should be a real-time delay of 5 seconds or less. Past efforts to fund the rural internet have ignored low latency, a requirement for real-time immersive communications needed to extend distance learning, Drennan said.

Karen Lightman, executive director of Metro21: Smart Cities Institute, at Carnegie Mellon University, calls the multibillion-dollar plan a “one-time opportunity” that would unleash smart city technology to dramatically reduce greenhouse gas emissions. tight. She told MarketWatch that 40% of emissions are currently caused by inefficient use of heating and cooling in buildings.

Read: Why a key federal fund to expand the fast internet in America is in jeopardy

In rural areas, Tina May, vice president of rural services at the Land O’Lakes Inc. agricultural cooperative, compares the broadband plan to the Rural Electrification Act of 1936, which provided electricity to every household in America. She expects the same this time around with high speed internet access.

Achieving the goals desired by Bill, however, is far from a slam dunk. Most of the money would be made available through state grants, and implementing such an ambitious program in so many states at various stages of need is a challenge, broadband officials say. .

“We now need to shift our focus from Congress to the NTIA and the state and local levels,” Gary Bolton, president of the Fiber Broadband Association, said in a statement. “Only 26 states currently have broadband offices, and other states have a representative, which is usually a multi-agency broadband working group. And, while 40 states currently have broadband programs, these state broadband programs vary widely. “

Spending will only be effective if the intertwined industries are in good shape, Spalding said, stressing the need for a healthy manufacturing base.

“We don’t have a manufacturing base to take advantage of,” Spalding warned. “Look at the supply chain issues. [Hurricane] Katrina is an example of what happens when infrastructure is badly damaged. We depend on these services for life.

Finally, there is the issue of security. With high-speed Internet access soon to be available to millions more people, the likelihood of cyber attacks is increasing. “This amplifies the security risks because everyone has access to the [superfast digital] highway, ”Bipul Sinha, CEO of cloud data management company Rubrik Inc., told MarketWatch.“ Data security is going to be a huge challenge. “

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