Anthony J. Pennings, PhD

WRITINGS ON DIGITAL STRATEGIES, ICT ECONOMICS, AND GLOBAL COMMUNICATIONS

U.S. Internet Policy, Part 6: Broadband Infrastructure and the Digital Divide

Posted on | June 4, 2022 | No Comments

In the era of the COVID-19 pandemic, the Internet proved to be more critical than ever. Parents telecommuted to work, kids telelearned at home, and streaming media services entertained both. Sick people began to use telemedicine instead of visiting the doctor or hospital. Many people applied for jobs online. Families also embraced the relative safety and convenience of e-commerce delivering commodities to the home.

Yet broadband services in the US were often not available, affordable, or up to the task of allowing all the people in a home to access the bandwidth needed. Previously I examined the decline of ISPs and the dominance of traditional telcos over broadband. Also, I wrote about the Trump’s administration’s support for ending net neutrality by the FCC. This post looks at the plans for broadband infrastructure in the US and addresses the challenges facing the Biden Administration’s Internet policy.

The digital divide proved to be more consequential than ever as the K-shaped recovery took shape, exacerbating income divisions. The divide has been particularly stressful on American families as schools and other activities for kids closed down during the Covid-19 pandemic. Some 20 million Americans had none, or very slow Internet service. while another 100 million could not afford broadband.

Inequalities were deepened by the types of jobs affected, as contact jobs in service industries were particularly hard hit while more professional jobs that could be conducted online did well. Also, financial assets continued to appreciate due to the Federal Reserve’s low-interest rates, and quantitative easing kept mortgages cheap and raised home prices.

During his first 100 days, Biden proposed a $2.25 trillion infrastructure package focused on updating transportation infrastructure as well as funding to fight climate change and other provisions to prop up American families. It has also incorporated the The Accessible, Affordable Internet for All Act introduced by US Senator Amy Klobuchar (D-MN), Co-chair of the Senate Broadband Caucus, and House Majority Whip James E. Clyburn (D-SC) in early 2021. This plan to modernize underserved communities involved:

– $80 billion to deploy high-speed broadband infrastructure;
– $5 billion for a related secured loan program; and a
– New office within the National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA) to monitor and ensure transparency in these projects.

In early November 2021, the House passed the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act bill 223-202 allocating over US$1 trillion in spending for much-needed infrastructure, with $579 billion in new spending, including US$65 billion for broadband.

The Senate had organized and passed the bill in the summer but it was held up in the House of Representatives. The House progressives wanted the bill tied to a third phase of the Build Back Better program with increased social spending for healthcare, new housing, and climate change. Eventually, Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi organized enough votes to pass the measure independently and President Biden signed the bill on November 15, 2021.

Infrastructure Bill

The infrastructure bill allocates money to three major areas: direct payments to consumers to pay for broadband services, support for municipal networks, including those in tribal areas, and subsidies for major companies to build out more broadband infrastructure such as fiber optics lines and wireless base stations. The money is destined for the states who can demonstrate groups in need.

It allocates $14 billion to help low-income Americans pay for service at about $30 a month. President Biden announced progress in the Affordable Connectivity Program, an extension and revision of the Emergency Broadband Benefit in the spring of 2022.

The digital divide emerged as a much-needed policy issue again due to the priorities of the COVID-19 pandemic and changes in education and work. More and better access, especially in rural areas became a high priority. Major broadband providers have organized to take advantage of infrastructure spending and comply with the administrations concerns to provide $30 monthly broadband subsidies for eligible households.

Several issues linger in the public’s consciousness depending on media attention. Some have come to the forefront of public scrutiny. These include:

– Even more, better, and cheaper broadband access through mobile, satellite, and wireline facilities, especially in rural areas. Broadband strategies must also consider the implications of SpaceX’s Starlink satellite network.

Also, we should be looking at a wider range of Internet issues such as:

– Antitrust concerns about cable and telco ISPs, including net neutrality.
– Privacy and the collection of behavioral data by platforms to predict, guide, and manipulate online user actions.
– Section 230 reform for Internet platforms and content producers, including assessing social media companies’ legal responsibilities for user-generated content.
– Security issues, including ransomware and other threats to infrastructure.
– Deep fakes, memes, and other issues of misrepresentation, including fake news.
– eGovernment and digital money, particularly the role of blockchain and cryptocurrencies as the Internet moves to Web 3.0.

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AnthonybwAnthony J. Pennings, Ph.D. is Professor of the Department of Technology and Society, State University of New York, Korea. From 2002-2012 was on the faculty of New York University. Previously, he taught at Victoria University in New Zealand where he studied the changes in their telecommunications industry. He researched also telecommunications issues at the East-West Center in Honolulu, Hawaii and was associated with the Pacific Telecommunications Council (PTC). He keeps his American home in Austin, Texas.

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    Professor at State University of New York (SUNY) Korea since 2016. Moved to Austin, Texas in August 2012 to join the Digital Media Management program at St. Edwards University. Spent the previous decade on the faculty at New York University teaching and researching information systems, digital economics, and strategic communications.

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