President Joe Biden on Wednesday is returning to Pittsburgh, where he kicked off his run for the presidency in 2019, to take the wraps off his next big legislative priority — a massive plan to modernize US infrastructure.
The infrastructure package, which will cost $2 trillion over eight years, includes money for a wide range of projects, from improving and maintaining roads, bridges and waterways to spending $100 billion over the next eight years to deploy broadband throughout rural America, according to the White House on Wednesday. Biden’s plan would also help subsidize the cost of broadband for low-income individuals in an effort to make broadband more affordable.
“Broadband internet is the new electricity,” the White House said. “It is necessary for Americans to do their jobs, to participate equally in school learning, health care, and to stay connected.”
The White House fact sheet detailing aspects of the plan highlights the fact that more than 30 million Americans live in areas without any access to broadband. And in urban and suburban markets where broadband is available, it’s often too expensive. This reality hits minority families harder than white families, creating digital inequities. The coronavirus pandemic, which led to shutdowns across the country, made the issues even more apparent, especially for students who struggled to connect to the internet for distance learning.
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“The President believes we can bring affordable, reliable, high-speed broadband to every American through a historic investment of $100 billion,” the White House said.
The “Build Back Better” agenda is a comprehensive effort that the President promises will boost the economy, address climate change by reducing carbon emissions, and reduce economic inequality. The spending plan is expected to go well beyond just addressing updates and maintenance to the nation’s highway and transit systems, with improvements to water systems and electrical grids, as well as investment in broadband, 5G wireless and supply chains.
Another major emphasis of the plan will be efforts to further reduce greenhouse gas emissions through electric cars and funding for research and development to target areas in which the United States is falling behind China, such as semiconductors and batteries.
Biden’s proposal has two main parts. The first, which will be discussed in his speech Wednesday, will focus on traditional infrastructure, like roads and bridges, as well as broadband expansion. The second initiative, which will be announced in April, will focus on funding policy areas that Biden believes will help rebuild the post-COVID-19 economy, such as universal pre-kindergarten education, child tax credits and paid leave. Billions will also be put toward programs to support the elderly and disabled, as well as initiatives for affordable housing infrastructure and manufacturing.
“The president has a plan to fix the infrastructure of our country,” White House press secretary Jen Psaki said Monday. “We are currently 13th in the world. No one believes we should be there, and he has a plan to pay for it, which he will propose.”
While things like closing the digital divide and more traditional infrastructure issues like improving and maintaining roads, bridges and waterways are largely bipartisan issues, the hefty price tag and the expansive nature of Biden’s plan are likely to face stiff resistance from Republicans and even some moderate Democrats in Congress.
Psaki told reporters that the administration will work with Congress on how to pay for the plan. She hinted that Biden would consider imposing higher taxes on large corporations. Congressional Republicans, who refused to support the $1.9 trillion COVID stimulus package, saying it was too expensive, are already pushing back. Lawmakers, such as Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, argue that tax increases will damage US competitiveness just as the economy struggles to rebound from the pandemic.
“I don’t think there’s going to be any enthusiasm on our side for a tax increase,” McConnell said earlier this month when asked about increasing taxes to support infrastructure spending.
Rural broadband to get a boost
The White House said the plan “will bring affordable, reliable, high-speed broadband to every American, including the more than 35 percent of rural Americans who lack access to broadband at minimally acceptable speeds.”
The plan is meant to ensure that Americans living in rural areas and tribal lands will have access to broadband. And it will also make broadband more affordable to the millions of people who live in urban and suburban markets where service is unaffordable, the White House said.
Allegheny County Executive Rich Fitzgerald, who represents the county in Pennsylvania where Biden will present his plan, said the investment in broadband infrastructure is very much needed. While urban areas like Pittsburgh and its surrounding suburbs may be well connected to broadband, Fitzgerald noted that access to high-speed internet in many rural areas is still lacking.
“You go to Armstrong County, Indiana County, Westmoreland County, and there are a lot of gaps in connectivity,” he said in an interview. “The investment that the president is looking to make in broadband will be critical for us here in southwestern Pennsylvania to grow economically.”
It’s a sentiment that resonates throughout the country.
“There are places in South Carolina you might as well be on the moon when it comes to getting high-speed internet service,” Republican Sen. Lindsay Graham said earlier this week after he and fellow South Carolina Republican Sen. Tim Scott introduced the the State Fix Act, a bill designed to get funding to broadband providers to build broadband networks in underserved areas. “All South Carolinians should be able to utilize the educational, telehealth and business benefits of accessible and affordable broadband.”
The digital divide is a problem that’s dogged policy makers for decades. In spite of billions of dollars spent by the federal government each year to get more Americans connected, there are still at least 19 million Americans who don’t have access to broadband, according to the Federal Communications Commission. That number is likely an underestimate, the FCC admits, given that the maps the government uses to determine who has service and who doesn’t are grossly inaccurate.
Though policy makers for years have talked about the problem, the issue has taken on a new urgency over the past year as the pandemic and resulting lockdown provided a stark reminder that having adequate broadband is no longer a luxury. As schools and offices across the US have shut down, the internet has become as necessary to day-to-day life as electricity and running water.
During his campaign, Biden said he would expand broadband to every American. Biden’s campaign promised $20 billion for rural broadband infrastructure for both wired and wireless networks to help bring internet access to areas where it simply doesn’t exist now. It also promised to include help for local municipalities seeking to build their own broadband networks.
Congress has already been allocating funds to address the digital divide since the pandemic began a year ago. A half dozen states used federal funding from the CARES Act passed last spring to help fund broadband infrastructure projects. Mississippi was one such state, allocating $65 million of its CARES Act funding to grants for electric co-ops, which used the money to accelerate the buildout of gigabit-speed broadband service on fiber-optic infrastructure.
Funds allocated by Congress in the December COVID relief bill are now being used to provide a $50 a month subsidy to low-income individuals to pay for broadband service. More money for broadband is coming from the latest COVID relief legislation signed into law earlier this month.
Why millions of Americans still lack broadband at a time…
But there is a sense that the Biden administration and Democrats such as House majority whip James E. Clyburn, of South Carolina, and Sen. Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota want to go bigger. Earlier this month, Clyburn and Klobuchar introduced the Accessible, Affordable Internet for All Act in the House and Senate that would allocate $94 billion to make affordable broadband internet access available nationwide. The legislation is an effort to close the digital divide and bring digital equity to millions of Americans.
Democrats say now’s the time to make big changes, much as the federal government did nearly a century ago when it brought electricity to rural America.
“Access to broadband today will have the same dramatic impact on rural communities as the rural electrification efforts in the last century,” Clyburn said.
As part of Biden’s plan to reach 100 percent of Americans with broadband, he also wants to prioritize spending on building “future-proof” broadband infrastructure in unserved and underserved areas. The plan will also prioritize spending for networks owned operated by or affiliated with local governments, nonprofits, and cooperatives, which the White House said would have “less pressure to turn profits and with a commitment to serving entire communities.” Funds will also be set aside for infrastructure in tribal lands.
The plan also calls for promoting transparency in price and competition among broadband providers, including lifting barriers that prevent municipally owned or electric co-ops from competing on an even playing field with private providers. It would also require internet providers to clearly disclose the prices they charge.
The plan also calls for reducing the cost of broadband to promote more widespread adoption.
“President Biden believes that building out broadband infrastructure isn’t enough,” the White House said. “We also must ensure that every American who wants to can afford high-quality and reliable broadband internet.”
Subsidies will be proposed in the short term to help low-income individuals cover the cost of service, but Biden’s ambitions go beyond that. The plan also calls for Congress to step in to find a solution to make internet more affordable for more Americans.
“Americans pay too much for the internet – much more than people in many other countries,” the White House said. “The President is committed to working with Congress to find a solution to reduce internet prices for all Americans, increase adoption in both rural and urban areas, hold providers accountable, and save taxpayer money.”