Biden wants to close the digital divide in the US. Here’s what that could look like

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The former auto parts warehouse Bill O’Boyle is refurbishing in Wilson, North Carolina, looks like a relic now, but within the next year, he hopes, it will be filled with dozens of people running his fast-growing tech consulting business.

It’s his second building, and he says the facility will let his workers compete, anchoring them in Wilson, about an hour outside the technology hub of Raleigh-Durham.

“It will be just as modern and advanced as other tech spaces you’d see in larger markets,” O’Boyle said.

The city is in the midst of a technology boom that’s driving economic growth throughout the region, thanks to speedy, affordable high-speed internet provided by a municipally-owned fiber optic network called Greenlight.

O’Boyle isn’t the only one benefiting from Greenlight’s ultra-fast service, which launched in 2008 and now serves nearly 11,000 customers. All of Wilson County’s schools run on Greenlight broadband. The network powers a local co-working space and incubator for start-up entrepreneurs. And every new home in the area built by local developer Hunter Stone is wired for upload and download speeds of up to 1,000 megabits per second. That’s fast enough to download a DVD’s worth of content in about 40 seconds.

“Before in rural America, you could not get high-speed broadband Internet, and now you can come out here and have country living, be close to a grocery store, good schools, low crime, and it all works,” Stone said.

That digital divide, which has persisted for years, is why the US government is now eyeing an ambitious proposal to invest tens of billions of dollars to ensure every American enjoys the same quality internet access that Wilson residents now do. But the effort has sparked political fights over how much money to spend, where to spend it and what types of internet access Americans need to stay competitive in the 21st century.

President Joe Biden has called for spending $100 billion to upgrade America’s broadband infrastructure, particularly in unserved and underserved areas. That includes households that have no internet access at all, a situation affecting about 17 million schoolchildren, according to the Federal Communications Commission. It also includes areas that lack much competition, where just one or two providers offer broadband speeds — defined as download speeds of 25 Mbps or faster and upload speeds of 3 Mbps or faster. According to FCC data, roughly two-thirds of Americans live in one of these areas.

A problem hidden in plain sight

For years, many broadband advocates have said the problem is even worse than the official numbers suggest because of a quirk in FCC methodology. The agency considers a Census tract served by broadband internet even if only one household in that entire area has broadband access. That methodology means some regions may appear flush with connectivity, when the reality may be just the opposite.

“You can’t spend any money until you redo the maps,” said Blair Levin, a former senior FCC official and a policy analyst at the investment firm New Street Research, during an April investor call.

The FCC this year embarked on a project to do just that. The agency intends to collect fresh, standardized data from internet providers about where they offer broadband service — then plot that on a map and allow the public to submit challenges where the reality doesn’t measure up to providers’ claims.

While the idea may seem simple — and agency officials say it should have been done long ago — the initiative is enormously complex, requiring multiple interlocking datasets and a technology platform to display it all. Last year, Congress appropriated $98 million for the project.

“The best time to update our broadband maps would have been four years ago; the second-best time is now,” said FCC Acting Chairwoman Jessica Rosenworcel. “It’s why I made it one of my top priorities, and why we’re making the short-term fixes necessary to improve the data we currently collect and the long-term investments necessary to get this important undertaking right. You can’t manage a problem you can’t measure.”

Proposals for the mapping portion of the project are due July 1. But the data problems are just the first in a series of thorny challenges in closing the digital divide.

Biden’s initial proposal on broadband funding has faced opposition by Senate Republicans, who have persuaded him to shrink the package to $65 billion. But the size of the plan isn’t the only area where Biden has run into resistance.

Shifting priority to community providers

Historically, the government has subsidized the building of broadband networks by offering incentives to private companies such as Verizon, Comcast and AT&T (which owns WarnerMedia, CNN’s parent company).

But in a break from the past, Biden’s proposal calls for prioritizing funding, for the first time, to the kind of community-built networks you’d find in Wilson. And the plan isn’t just focused on building out broadband in rural or outlying areas. Some of the most persistent examples of the digital divide can be found in dense urban neighborhoods struggling with poverty or inequality. In many of these areas, local organizations have had to step in where commercial internet providers saw little potential profit.

In Cleveland, Ohio, some 44% of homes lack broadband, according to a 2018 report by the National Digital Inclusion Alliance. Monica Malik once lived in one of these households. When the pandemic began, she said, she had no internet access at all. “No one was servicing over here,” she said. “I don’t know why.”

Now she pays $19 a month for service that allows her to run her own business selling natural oils and fragrances — and to keep her 10-year-old son in school. That’s thanks to DigitalC, a local non-profit that’s building out fixed wireless networks by putting advanced millimeter-wave antennas on rooftops and helping to connect low-income households.

Related: America’s surprising breeding ground for inequality: The internet

The White House wants to support these initiatives by local governments, non-profits and cooperatives, it has said, because they provide services with “less pressure to turn profits and with a commitment to serving entire communities.”

Commercial internet providers have bristled at that language.

“We realize that rural co-ops or local governments may be the best solution in some unserved communities, but the government shouldn’t irrationally favor one solution over others,” said NCTA, a cable industry trade group, in a recent blog post. “The privately funded broadband industry has achieved spectacular results over the last decade and most notably met the enormous challenge of the pandemic, keeping Americans working from home, learning remotely, and using telehealth to stay safe.”

The industry has succeeded in preventing more projects like Wilson’s. More than a dozen states have laws on the books restricting municipalities from competing with commercial internet providers, according to the Institute for Local Self-Reliance, a non-profit advocacy group. And some Republicans in Congress have sought to elevate those limitations to the federal level with a bill that would ban municipal networks outright.

Proponents have argued that by providing a public option for broadband access, cities can inject competition into markets that have been abandoned by private providers or are lacking competition.

“Municipal networks like those in Chattanooga, Tennessee and Wilson, North Carolina put to lie the claim that local governments can’t build and operate first-class information infrastructure,” wrote Ry Marcattilio-McCracken, a senior researcher with ISLR, in a recent blog post. “The big monopoly ISPs have left huge gaps all over the country as they prioritize investment based on returning short-term profits that extract wealth from communities.”

How fast should public internet be?

Yet even if the White House can agree with Congress on allowing and funding the expansion of public networks, there remains a question of how fast the technology should be in both public and private networks.

The US definition of broadband has not changed since 2015, when the FCC voted to adopt the current standard of 25 Mbps down, 3 Mbps up (before then, broadband was defined as 10 Mbps down and 1 Mbps up). The pandemic has tested that definition, as children and adults within the same household have been forced to share scarce bandwidth while spending hours on Zoom calls for work and school.

Whether the broadband standard will remain the same or be raised under the infrastructure bill is emerging as another focal point of the debate, because where the threshold is drawn could determine which technologies — cable, wireless, satellite or fiber — are best positioned to receive federal funding.

Fiber optic connections built straight into a home can reach tremendous sustained speeds — typically up to 1,000 Mbps. But fiber networks are also among the most expensive to build, and setting the target that high could wind up excluding other important technologies that still do a good job, or emerging technologies that hold a lot of promise, like 5G wireless data connections.

It’s not clear what specific standard the Biden administration has in mind; the White House’s initial plan called for “future proof” networks, which many experts have interpreted as a preference for fiber. But last month, the Treasury Department issued guidelines on how Covid-19 relief funds from the American Rescue Plan should be spent. Those guidelines suggested that providers only needed to hit a much lower target to seek funding, 100 Mbps, and there could be exceptions.

This could be a clue for where the Biden administration may end up in the infrastructure talks, according to Levin.

“These guidelines should be seen as the first concrete data for how at least some in the Administration (particularly at the Departments of Treasury and Commerce) view certain broadband policy cuts,” he wrote in a recent analysis, adding that the guidelines were “potentially predictive of the Administration’s view of broadband issues in the infrastructure bill.”

And another clue? In March, a group of US senators also called for broadband standards to be raised to speeds of 100 Mbps down and 100 Mbps up. That group included West Virginia Democratic Sen. Joe Manchin, who is viewed as a key swing vote on any infrastructure bill.

Short-term solutions in a crisis

The pandemic forced millions of Americans to confront the lack of broadband access in their communities. In response, the US government has taken some short-term steps.

Last year, the FCC called on internet providers not to cut customers off who couldn’t pay due to Covid-19. More recently, the agency launched a temporary program to help Americans struggling with their internet bills as a result of Covid-19. And this month, Vice President Kamala Harris, along with the Departments of Commerce and Interior, announced $1 billion in broadband grants for tribal lands, money that will aim to connect unserved Native American, Alaska Native and Native Hawaiian households.

But the infrastructure bill currently being negotiated is at least an order of magnitude larger, targets hundreds of millions of households and could make a substantial dent in the country’s digital divide — if Congress and the White House can come to a deal.