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US broadband proposal a 'down payment' on closing digital divide, experts say


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US broadband proposal a 'down payment' on closing digital divide, experts say

While broadband policy experts applauded the $65 billion in funding for internet infrastructure included as part of U.S. President Joe Biden's $579 billion infrastructure framework, some rural broadband proponents cautioned that more is needed to connect all Americans to the internet.

The $65 billion allotted to broadband infrastructure is about a third less than the $100 billion in the White House's original American Jobs Plan introduced in March. Still, policy experts said it represents a step forward in recognizing — and funding — broadband as critical infrastructure.

"Not so long ago, we were questioning if broadband is essential and we have come several generations away from that," said Mignon Clyburn, co-chair of the BroadLand Campaign and former commissioner with the U.S. Federal Communications Commission, on a June 29 press call with other industry experts. "This is another beginning step, but not an end step," Clyburn added.

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Many lawmakers and policy analysts have argued the need for more robust broadband connectivity, especially amid lingering impacts from the COVID-19 pandemic, with many people expected to continue working or learning remotely at least part time for the near term. Programs like the Federal Communications Commission's Emergency Broadband Benefit Program, which aims to make broadband more affordable for low-income households, have seen millions of households enroll, with more expected as outreach to eligible consumers improves.

On the June 29 call with Clyburn, Ernesto Falcon, senior legislative counsel at the Electronic Frontier Foundation, a consumer advocacy group, called the $65 billion proposal a "down payment" on what's needed to improve America's broadband infrastructure, but said the proposal's effectiveness will depend on how well deployment policies are written and enacted.

"If you have the right policy in place and you’ve been building the right infrastructure, a lot of these networks will be self-sustaining and expanding on their own once they’re built," Falcon said. Still, he added: "The more money you put up front, the faster we get to the end of the digital divide."

On a June 29 webinar hosted by ACA Connects - America's Communications Association, a trade group representing small to midsize cable operators, the group's senior vice president of government affairs Ross Lieberman said many questions remain as to how the broadband funding would be deployed. He also questioned how far the $65 billion would go towards fully closing America's digital divide.

"There's a lot that can be done," Lieberman said. "We can close the gap significantly, but some of the ambitions of policymakers might be too much for $65 billion."

The ACA in a policy framework document estimated it would cost up to $67 billion to connect 19 million locations with high-speed internet, and other up to $51 billion to subsidize the cost of broadband for low-income families as part of any comprehensive effort to close the digital divide.

Greg Walden, Chairman of Alpine Advisors and former chair of the U.S. House Energy and Commerce Committee, noted that funding needs are especially high in areas that lack service today. During his time representing a largely rural district in Oregon from 1999 to 2021, Walden said he grew concerned that fast internet connections kept getting faster, while underserved areas or those without any connection "got left behind."

U.S. President Joe Biden reached a deal with a bipartisan group of senators June 24 on the infrastructure package, but the legislation to enact it still must be passed by Congress before it can move forward. In addition to broadband infrastructure funding, the proposal includes billions in funding for energy infrastructure, clean transit and other reclamation projects.