Joe Biden has broadband on his mind. The digital divide became even more apparent during the pandemic, making it nearly impossible for businesses in areas without adequate broadband access to launch a new e-commerce shop or even have Zoom calls with co-workers.
"As we've seen during the Covid-19 crisis, access to broadband and technology platforms has been critical to small-business survival during this period," says Karen Kerrigan, president and CEO of the Small Business and Entrepreneurship Council. "Without broadband, it was very hard to pivot and move to new operating models."
Help may be coming soon from the White House. President-elect Biden's website listed universal broadband as one of its priorities for economic recovery. The Trump administration pledged to spend roughly $20 billion over 10 years on expanding broadband service to rural areas, and that will likely continue under the incoming administration. Biden's plan for rural America specifically references spending $20 billion in expanding rural broadband infrastructure, tripling funding for Community Connect broadband grants to expand access in rural areas, and reforming the Lifeline program, which subsidizes internet and phone services for low-income participants.
Darrell West, vice president and director of governance studies at the Brookings Institution, says the Biden administration could expand universal access by subsidizing service in underserved rural and urban areas and helping those without access purchase the connections they need. He noted that this should be a high priority because people cannot apply for jobs, make online transactions, or access government services without high-speed broadband.
Still, getting customers to actually sign up for broadband services is an additional challenge, according to Scott Wallsten, president and fellow of the Technology Policy Institute.
"The bigger problem is people who live in areas where broadband is available, but they don't have it," Wallsten says. While programs like Comcast's Internet Essentials provide basic internet service to low-income Americans for $10 a month and resulted in many customers signing up for broadband for the first time, there are still many households that still don't have access, Wallsten adds. "We need to start implementing some experiments to get a better idea of what works and what doesn't," he says.
Both Wallsten and the SBE Council are in support of universal broadband access in the U.S., which essentially means that every American will have access to a broadband internet connection. Nearly one-fourth of Americans who live in rural areas lack access to fixed broadband services, according to the Federal Communications Commission's Eighth Broadband Progress report.
The Biden administration has stated that it will support cities and local governments that want to build their own municipally-owned broadband networks. There are more than 331 municipal broadband networks in the U.S. today, in cities including Ammon, Idaho, and Rockport, Maine, according to Broadband Now. But 22 states have outlawed municipal broadband outright, leaving residents with no alternative to corporate internet service providers.
While making broadband a public utility, in line with gas or electricity, has been a favored proposal of some local governments, it's unlikely to happen on a national scale. Kerrigan noted that with a divided Congress, there likely won't be enough consensus for a national plan to make broadband a public utility. Instead, Kerrigan thinks the Biden Administration should focus on areas that will receive support from both sides of the aisle, and rely on both public and private actors to build out broadband. There will be significant support for more infrastructure spending on expanding broadband from both Democrats and Republicans.
Kerrigan said that the Biden administration should look at all the positive steps that the Trump administration took to expand broadband access and deploy 5G in rural and underserved areas of the country. She added that the FCC is leveraging massive amounts of private sector capital to fully build out America's networks.
"There will be significant consensus for infrastructure spending on broadband. Focusing on building out 'the last mile,' winning the race to 5G, and implementing other needed reforms to get to universal access will be attainable by President-elect Biden if he focuses on strengthening the public-private model," Kerrigan says. "That would be a major accomplishment under his watch."