Congress Funnels Billions to Broadband. Bureaucrats Cry for More.
The taxpayer money allocated toward broadband continues to grow at an accelerated — some might argue exponential — pace as bureaucrats rush toward their goal of 100 percent connectivity. Critics are concerned that the massive amounts of spending already allocated this year for broadband will be wasted and not help close the digital divide.
For example, $9.6 billion in federal funding was dedicated to broadband in 2019. That number grew to $9.9 billion in 2020. The funding dedicated in 2021 and beyond is an incredible $127.3 billion.
That doesn’t even count nearly $788 billion in COVID-19 relief and stimulus funding that’s available for many uses, including broadband.
The funding includes the Federal Communications Commission’s Emergency Broadband Benefit program that is part of the Consolidated Appropriations Act. The program provides discounts of up to $50 per month ($75 per month in tribal areas) to subsidize broadband service for those with low incomes.
Jessica Rosenworcel, acting chairwoman of the FCC, told members of the Internet Innovation Alliance during a recent webinar that there is talk of Congress appropriating another $4 billion for that program. She said that Pew Research Center found that one third of households are worried about the cost of broadband as she pushed for more subsidies.
“I think we have a generational chance to make sure no one is left on the wrong side of the digital divide,” she said.
Jeffrey Westling, resident fellow in technology and innovation at the R Street Institute, told the Taxpayers Protection Alliance (TPA) that he’s not against the concept of allocating taxpayer money toward broadband, given its importance in modern-day society. But he believes that spending has reached an inflection point.
“We really need to slow the roll here, and make sure we’re using the money efficiently,” he said.
As TPA has reported, overbuilding — or using taxpayer money to create networks where sufficient high-speed internet already exists — is a concern for many. Municipal networks are commonly created in cities that already have sufficient service, such as Traverse City, Michigan. And, inefficient maps don’t provide a strong indication of which areas are truly unserved or underserved.
Westling pointed out the Infrastructure Investment & Jobs Act is the big one, given that the legislation would allocate nearly $65 billion toward broadband as presently written. The Senate passed the infrastructure bill 69-30, with many Republicans supporting it, and it has been returned to the House with amendments.
The New York Times reported that the bill could face a lengthy path forward because House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) and other Democrats are trying to strong-arm the Senate into passing a separate and more ambitious $3.5 trillion social policy bill this fall.
Westling said he has some concerns that the vast amount of money being talked about in the legislation could lead to overbuilding.
“It’s not necessarily egregious, but we need to make sure it’s done right,” Westling said. “Otherwise we will be throwing money away if we’re not careful.”
While broadband connectivity is certainly important, members of Congress need not forget that voters task them with being good stewards of taxpayer money. They should proceed cautiously before allocating more funds toward high-speed internet.
Just spending more taxpayer money won’t necessarily close the digital divide. Any additional funding must come with strict oversight.
Johnny Kampis is a senior fellow and investigative reporter for the Taxpayers Protection Alliance.