Peek Under the Tent of Biden’s Rural Broadband Plan

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The New Yorker profiles President Joe Biden’s intent to provide universal broadband service under his “Plan for Rural America,” a goal that enjoys broad bipartisan support.

Part of the problem is the absence of reliable data on how many Americans lack high-speed internet. In a 2019 report, the FCC estimated that 21 million Americans lack broadband, which it defines as a minimum download speed of 25 mbps down/3 mbps. That estimate is based on figures supplied by internet providers. A study by industry watchdog Broadband Now puts the number without broadband at forty-two million. That doesn’t include the estimated 18.5 million who cannot afford broadband in places where it is available.

Without accurate data, efforts to bridge the digital divide will fail, according to The New Yorker. “The maps that show where there is service are horrible,” said Sen. Joe Manchin (D-WV). Pai called Manchin’s characterization “categorically wrong.” Under Pai, the FCC worked to improve the maps, Inside Towers noted. 

Brian Deese, the new head of the National Economic Council, said the Biden Administration is aware that bad data has resulted in poor internet service, even as the companies supplying it received billions of dollars in federal subsidies. “It’s a problem we’re actively working with Congress and the FCC to fix,” he said. As part of its December 2020 COVID-19 relief package, Congress allocated $65 million to the agency to fix the maps, Inside Towers reported.

In his “Plan for Rural America,” candidate Joe Biden promised “to expand broadband, or wireless broadband via 5G, to every American.” As part of the effort, Biden promised $20 billion dollars to build rural-broadband infrastructure, as well as a tripling of the amount of money available to organizations, local governments, tribal groups, and corporations to wire rural communities through the United States Department of Agriculture’s Community Connect program.

Rural Broadband Association CEO Shirley Bloomfield was invited to join the campaign’s innovation and broadband-deployment committees. “Probably two weeks after the election, we were called in to meet with the FCC transition team, with the National Telecommunications and Information Administration transition team, and the U.S.D.A. rural-development team to share our ideas and priorities,” she told The New Yorker. “They hit the ground running.”

The federal COVID-19 relief bill passed in December allocated billions of dollars to expand broadband access to low-income families, a billion dollars to wire tribal lands, and millions of dollars for distance learning and telemedicine.

Two years ago, the FCC announced the Rural Digital Opportunity Fund (RDOF) auction, a $20 billion pot of money, paid out over 10 years, to bring broadband to underserved rural areas. RDOF was designed as a reverse auction; it would reward companies that submitted the lowest bids for the fastest service. The auction’s first phase, which began this past October, aimed to bring service to more than six million underserved homes and businesses.

Bloomfield and others, such as Senator Shelley Moore Capito (R-WV), were concerned after the auction’s winners were announced. The biggest winner, LTD Broadband, bid $1.3 billion. The company’s primary focus has been wireless technology, not fiber-optic broadband, and a number of broadband experts questioned whether it would be able to achieve the speed and fiber-optic capabilities on which the grant was premised. A representative from LTD Broadband said the company has deployed fiber-optics in the past and would be massively scaling its production capabilities to fulfill the grant obligations.

Awardees Elon Musk’s SpaceX and Frontier also drew questions, Inside Towers reported.

If she’s named permanent Chair, now FCC Acting Chair Jessica Rosenworcel will need to oversee the next stage of the RDOF auction. She will also preside over the agency’s mapping initiative, and the expansion of broadband that was funded by December’s COVID-19 relief bill. “If you do it right, you’ll take the old programs, and you’ll take new dollars and scarce resources and direct them to the right places to help solve this problem.” The ultimate goal, Rosenworcel said, should be reaching 100 percent of Americans with high-speed broadband service. “That’s not unprecedented. We did it before with rural electrification. We now need to do it with digitization.”

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