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$65 Billion Buildout: Will All Americans Get Online?

If the information revolution had not come into full swing before the global covid-19 pandemic, it certainly has now. With an estimated 60% of the workforce at least partially working from home, reliable broadband Internet is clearly central to most people’s professional lives (not to mention their personal lives, considering the prevalence of media streaming, video chatting and online gaming). And yet, 42 million Americans lack access to reliable high-speed Internet, either because of its availability or cost. (Some among them may not want broadband, but many likely do and lack a good option.) As such, the 2021 Infrastructure Bill allocates an unprecedented $65 billion to help close the digital divide. There are many questions about how this money should best be spent, how to avoid waste and duplication, and defining new standards for what we even consider “broadband” to be. But to begin, this post provides an overview of the current state of broadband in the Infrastructure Bill and the biggest current issues. This will serve as the baseline from which future blog posts and projects can dive more deeply.

A Focus on Rural, Underserved Areas

As our technology team has previously covered, there are several reasons that the digital divide persists even within dense urban cities where broadband infrastructure is available, including cost and lack of consumer familiarity with computer and Internet systems. The good news is that a good portion of the Infrastructure Bill’s $65 billion is allocated towards subsidizing the costs of Internet subscriptions and training people and communities on using the Internet. But bringing high-speed Internet access to where it does not currently exist has proven to be more of a challenge. This post covers some of the key priorities of the Infrastructure Bill, as well as different potential solutions to bringing the Internet to every corner of the country.

The Infrastructure Bill

Further developing the broadband relief packages passed as part of the Covid Relief package, the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act was signed into law on November 15, 2021. It provides a substantial amount of investment into different categories of broadband buildout, including:

  • $1 billion for middle mile networks, defined as “a dedicated line that transmits a signal to and from an internet point of presence”
  • $600 million to enable states to issue private activity bonds to finance broadband deployment in rural areas where a majority of households do not have broadband access
  • $2 billion in additional support for rural areas through the U.S. Department of Agriculture, including the ReConnect program that provides loans, grants and loan/grant combinations to fund broadband deployments
  • $2 billion for the Tribal Broadband Connectivity program, which was established in the December 2020 COVID-19 relief package and is administered by the NTIA
  • $14.2 billion for an Affordability Connectivity Benefit to provide a $30 per month voucher for low-income families to use toward an Internet service plan of their choosing

Where and How to Spend the Money

The primary locations for buildout are centered in areas that do not currently have 25 Mbps (download)/3 Mbps (upload) broadband available, and the intention is to bring them up to at least 100/20. Much of the money is disbursed to individual states, which then make decisions on how to spend it, along with oversight from the NTIA. Blair Levin (a major architect of the 2009 broadband bill) outlines several steps that states should take to ensure the money is well-spent. In June 2022, four states were approved for Capital Projects Funds to connect over 200k unconnected homes and businesses. However, there is contention around the process of stipulations and preferences in the fund disbursements. NTIA head Alan Davidson wants to pressure states with restrictive rules on municipal broadband to be more permissive, but it is not clear if he can legally do so. Senator Rick Scott has also introduced a follow-up bill to ensure accountability of how the $42B is spent, and Davidson was questioned by several senators on different conditions and oversight requirements.

Some Options for Broadband Buildout

There are several promising options for spending this money. One major path forward is brownfield fiber deployment, or laying fiber in or alongside existing copper, coaxial, water, gas or sewage infrastructure that have already been set throughout the US. Because trenching, or digging up dirt to lay cable, is so expensive, telecommunication companies want to avoid that whenever possible. Snaking fiber along pipes and paths that have already been dug is a clear, easy way to bring fiber to every home, even if the economics involve leasing it from other parties.

Another option centers on the use of dark fiber, or fiber networks that are not owned and operated by large telecommunications companies, to provide high-speed Internet to more end-users. There are several examples of public and private dark fiber, including Washington DC’s DC-Net, Stealth Communications in New York City and the Internet2 consortium throughout the country. They are all marketed to enterprise-level companies and organizations, as they typically require more significant maintenance for their operations (and have added expenses for network maintenance) than average individuals and households. However, there is no reason that a local, last-mile ISP could not rent some of this dark fiber for their business. In an industry in which it is traditionally thought to be difficult to compete without providing your own infrastructure, dark fiber allows for competition at the local telecom level without any new required fiber infrastructure.

But getting and using fiber in the ground is not the only challenge. It is one thing to bring fiber to one access point for a single-family home, but what about a duplex home, apartment complex or other Multi-Dwelling Unit? Much like trenching in the dirt, it is quite time-consuming and expensive to snake fiber throughout a large building to serve every resident, but one solution to this comes in the form of a Access Multiplexer (GAM). This is an exciting technology, because it claims to offer Gigabit speed over existing copper (formerly used for dial-up Internet access and landline phone calling) or cable infrastructure. In other words, all a property manager needs is a single fiber touchpoint to the building, and then they can use a GAM to deliver high speeds without replacing any wiring inside. One significant use case for GAMs comes in the form of Project Waves, a nonprofit ISP in Baltimore that aims to close the city’s digital divide. It recently used the GAMs for the Hollins House, an old 130-unit building with a mix of copper and cable wiring, to bring the entire building up to literal speed in less than a month. These kinds of technical challenges and solutions are where the Infrastructure Bill’s money can be especially useful.

Anchor Institutions and the Digital Divide

One major aspect of broadband buildout is not technical at all but social. Local anchor institutions play a pivotal role in their communities. They can also be an instrumental component in providing last-mile Internet to local individuals and households. One example covered by the Benton Foundation is the Mooresville Graded School District in North Carolina. The school ensures that every student has access to broadband at home, and as a result, the school has seen a variety of educational improvements. The Schools, Health & Libraries Broadband (SHLB) Coalition is one of the leading national advocacy organizations for open, affordable broadband for community anchor institutions. They have applauded many aspects of the Infrastructure Bill and recently announced their policy priorities for 2022. Now that the money has been approved, there are many open questions about the details of how this money should be best spent and the optimal procedures and processes for requesting funding. Whatever other broadband solutions may exist, anchor institutions remain an important cornerstone of community organizing and connection, both socially and technologically.

Where to Go from Here

Many are calling this funding a once-in-a-lifetime chance to bring all Americans up to parity on Internet access. It is certainly an exciting moment, but there are still many questions to be answered in this rollout: Who needs the money the most? Should it depend on the long-term ability to pay? Who should be able to build and manage these networks? We hope to work with a variety of stakeholders to put out strong bipartisan recommendations on the matter and will continue to inform on the most pressing issues and debates.

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