President Biden's $ 2 trillion US Jobs Plan infrastructure proposal used a broader definition of infrastructure than most people associate with the word. It took on everything from roads, pipes and electricity to climate change, union jobs and inequality.
It also raised $ 100 billion in America's digital infrastructure, with the lofty goal of giving all Americans access to the affordable, reliable, high-speed Internet they need to participate in today's economy. The plan has few details for now, but the vast majority of that money will go towards building superfast broadband connections for the millions of Americans who still don't have them. There are also provisions on promoting competition and lowering prices. Biden called broadband internet "the new electricity", likened to the need for a federal initiative to bring it to all Americans. Rural Electrification Act of 1936
If you've been paying close attention, Biden & # 39; s focus on closing the digital divide should come as no surprise. He called for "universal broadband" during his campaign in his Build back a better planHe appointed Jessica Rosenworcel, who has been standing up for affordable broadband internet for years as FCC Commissioner, as acting chairman of the Federal Communications Commission (FCC).
Rosenworcel & # 39; s response to Biden & # 39; s plan, by the way? "I participate."
Broadband for 100% of us. I participate.
– Jessica Rosenworcel (@JRosenworcel) March 31, 2021
But it is also a huge and complicated undertaking that America has been trying to accomplish for years, under three (now four) presidencies. The exact number of Americans who don't have access to broadband infrastructure depends on several factors, including the cards you use to count them and what your definition of reliable super-fast internet is. Biden estimated the number at 30 million. And that number doesn't include the millions of Americans who do have access to broadband internet but can't afford it, making that access pointless.
The affordability issue has become all the more apparent and problematic during the pandemic. Lawmakers had to work hard to help lower-income people gain Internet access through various grants and incentive bills, while the FCC essentially had to beg ISPs not to shut down Americans if they couldn't afford their internet bills. However, those aren't permanent fixes, and for some they still weren't enough. Biden & # 39; s plan aims to help those people too.
"When I say affordable, I mean it," Biden said in a speech announcing the plan. "Americans pay too much."
High-speed Internet is essential in the 21st century, but nearly 30 million Americans do not have access. It's time to change that. pic.twitter.com/2JBbMTsw1l
– The White House (@WhiteHouse) March 31, 2021
Proponents of universal broadband access and affordability have praised the plan.
"It's a serious effort to achieve digital equality for all Americans, tackle overpriced Internet services, and implement greater transparency and accountability," Willmary Escoto of the nonprofit Access Now told Recode. "The American Jobs Plan takes the US into a new digital future, one where every individual in America has a fair chance of success."
Gigi Sohn, a distinguished fellow at the Georgetown Institute for Technology Law & Policy, said in a statement that Biden & # 39; s plan stood out not only in its ambition, but also in “the message it sends out – that broadband, like electricity, is a necessity, and that one cannot participate in our economy, our education and health systems and our society without it. .. The United States cannot afford to be a country of digital haves and have-nots. "
"President Biden & # 39; s $ 100 billion infrastructure plan recognizes an important fact about broadband today – it is an essential service, like water and electricity, and our public policies must reflect that fact," Greg Guice, director of government affairs at open internet advocacy group Public Knowledge, said in a statement"We look forward to working with the board and members of Congress in their effort to take this bold initiative to close the digital divide."
The fact sheet Biden's declassified government goes no further into the details than to say how much money Biden wants to invest and, in general, what he hopes the return on that investment will be: fast, "future-proof". broadband access covering the whole country; more competition between providers, including municipal plans and cooperatives; and lower costs.
Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-MN) said that the Biden plan was based on the Accessible, Affordable Internet for All Act, which she and Rep. Jim Clyburn (D-SC) introduced into their respective homes last year and re-introduced last month.
That bill gives $ 80 billion in broadband infrastructure, requires service providers using networks built on that infrastructure to provide affordable service plans, and brings in an additional $ 6 billion for the Emergency Broadband Benefit program. It will also make it easier for local governments, public private partnerships and cooperatives to build their own networks that can compete with traditional profitable service providers – which remain the only real option for consumers in many areas.
"The coronavirus pandemic has exposed and exacerbated many long-standing flaws that need to be fixed if America is to maintain its greatness," Clyburn told Recode. "In addition to fixing many of our country's mistakes, the US job plan wisely protects against the emergence of new mistakes in the future."
Anna Read, a senior investigative officer with the broadband access initiative at the Pew Charitable Trusts, told Recode that the federal government look at state and local broadband access programs, which Read believes will be the key to implement Biden's vision.
"States have really been at the forefront of this field in recent years," said Read. "They have invested significant government bonds and expanded broadband access. … Increasingly, states are also starting to look at affordability issues."
While the Biden Plan promises a lot, implementing it will be a different matter. Presidents Bush, Obama and Trump all had lofty goals about connecting America. None of them delivered, and millions of Americans paid the price for that failure when the pandemic exposed just how far behind America is.
Scott Wallsten, president and senior fellow at the Technology Policy Institute, said there are too many unknowns at this point to say whether Biden's plan will be the one to reverse that trend. After all, if it was easy to get everyone in America online, it would have already happened. He hopes the plan provides for experimentation and analysis to see where and why people aren't going online, rather than just throwing money at a problem and assuming that will solve it. He sees a lot of places where this could go wrong or be a waste, but he said there is also reason to be optimistic.
"What I think is good is that people are actually paying attention to the digital divide and its impact in a way they never were before," said Wallsten. "We see the problems and the inequalities and what can happen as a result … I think those people are really visible."
"This is a significant challenge for the infrastructure, but it is also a challenge in terms of affordability," said Read. "Tackling the two together will be very important to close the digital divide."
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