US Broadband Networks Don’t Need to Be Rescued by Taxpayers
Our roads, bridges, and water systems may be “crumbling,” but broadband isn’t broken.
President Biden’s American Jobs Plan identifies the nation’s infrastructure that needs to be fixed, rebuilt and rehabilitated. While federal funds for broadband deployment in unserved areas of the country are urgently needed, America’s existing networks don’t need to be saved by taxpayers. As-is, the administration’s plan would undermine 25 years of private investment by tossing aside existing high-speed internet infrastructure. Taxpayer dollars should instead be tightly focused on closing the digital divide.
The U.S. broadband industry has poured more than $1.8 trillion into networks since 1996, the largest investment in any sector of the U.S. economy. Those dollars have delivered ever-increasing speeds and network capacity. Over the past decade, internet speeds have increased more than 12,400%, while the average price per megabit of a broadband subscription has declined by 92%.
Our networks have also proven resilient. As U.S. internet traffic jumped 48% during the pandemic, the increased demand was consistently met. In Europe, by contrast, providers like Netflix and YouTube were asked to reduce streaming quality to prevent the internet from collapsing.
Despite extraordinary investment by U.S. broadband providers – more than three times per household compared to investment in the EU (or about $700 per home each year) – the digital divide persists, although it has narrowed over time. According to new Pew Research, 60% of U.S. adults said they had a broadband connection at home in 2011, whereas 77% said the same in 2021.
There are limits to what private investment alone can do. While estimates vary, it’s clear that more than 20 million Americans still live in areas not served by an internet connection with speeds of at least 25 Mbps download and 3 Mbps upload (25/3), which is the current FCC definition of broadband. For the most part, they live in rural areas where the costs of broadband deployment are so high that broadband providers find offering a service to be uneconomic. Government has a major role to play in connecting these homes.
The White House recently released state-by-states breakdowns of broadband speed and coverage and proposed building new networks where coverage already exists. To use one example, the Administration says “5.5% of Californians live in areas where, by one definition, there is no broadband infrastructure that provides minimally acceptable speeds” but suggests that taxpayer dollars should go toward overbuilding networks serving close to 60% of the population.
With today’s standard 25/3 speeds, users can stream Netflix Ultra HD movies, use Zoom in 1080p to learn alongside other class members, hold a Google Meet with 49 coworkers in gallery view, or be seen by a doctor via Doxy. While increasing speeds for those with connections that meet the current definition of broadband would be nice, taxpayer dollars should first go toward connecting unserved Americans who do not have at least 25/3 speeds.
It’s sensible to expend federal funds in a way that “future proofs” internet access, so the federal definition of broadband should be raised to 100mbps download and 20mbps upload (100/20), and networks funded through the infrastructure bill should be built to that standard (with 100/20 speeds, three to five users can download or stream HD simultaneously). Anyone without a connection that meets the current definition of broadband should be considered “unserved” and first priority, and anyone without a connection of at least 100/20 should be categorized as “underserved” and targeted with remaining federal dollars for network upgrades.
Some in Congress are proposing that the definition of broadband be changed to 100mbps download/100mbps upload (100/100), an internet speed that could only be achieved with the deployment of fiber optics. Building fiber networks would be exorbitantly expensive in many geographically-challenging areas of the country. To achieve 100/20 speeds in unserved and underserved areas, on the other hand, a variety of technologies could be used, including cable, next-generation fixed wireless, fiber optics or satellite, all of which could be upgraded down the road.
Similar to California, approximately two-thirds of the United States would be classified as “unserved” or “underserved” if the new definition of broadband is set at 100/100. Building networks at 100/100 speeds in two-thirds of the nation would be an extraordinarily expensive undertaking not required by any practical understanding of need. On the other hand, elevating the definition of broadband to 100/20 would enable networks to accommodate future internet applications that require significantly higher download and upload speeds than today’s standard in a way that is financially achievable.
Fortunately, Secretary of Commerce Gina Raimondo during a recent Congressional hearing indicated that the Administration will consider options other than fiber in the cases where alternatives are “the best, most effective ways to deliver broadband.” Even recent guidance from the Treasury and Commerce Departments acknowledged that all-fiber, all-the-time may not be realistic:
There may be instances in which it would not be practicable for a project to deliver [symmetrical upload and download speeds of 100 Mbps] because of the geography, topography, or excessive costs associated with such a project. In these instances, the affected project would be expected to be designed to deliver, upon project completion, service that reliably meets or exceeds 100 Mbps download and between at least 20 Mbps and 100 Mbps upload speeds…
An insistence on overbuilding well-functioning networks in communities without 100/100 speeds would entail extreme expense and would almost certainly result in many people without broadband today being left on the wrong side of the digital divide after federal dollars dry up.
American broadband networks are the most robust in the world. The United States makes up less than 5% of the total world population, but Americans generate almost one-third of the globe’s data traffic. At a time when our nation is endeavoring to rebuild, the Administration should move nice-to-haves down its long list. We must take bold steps to connect the entire nation, but there is no need for well-functioning U.S. broadband networks built with private investment to be rescued at taxpayer expense.
Rick Boucher was a Democratic member of the US House for 28 years and chaired the House Energy and Commerce Committee's Subcommittee on Communications and the Internet. He is honorary chairman of the Internet Innovation Alliance (IIA).