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The bipartisan consensus on broadband is a mirage

In Washington, there is a tense argument between Republicans and Democrats over President Biden’s infrastructure plan, from the amount of funding it includes to the definition of infrastructure. But when it comes to tackling the internet and bridging the digital divide, there seems to be a consensus that broadband is very, very important and very, very bipartisan. This is a mirage.

Earlier this week, Vice President Kamala Harris met with Congressmen from both parties to work out the logistics of broadband funding through the infrastructure package and said the issue was an issue that Americans consider impartial. Senator Amy Klobuchar told the Minnesota local media that the discussion focused only on “nuts and bolts”.

While Republicans and the White House are still debating the cost of the entire infrastructure package, they agreed on how much the package should spend on broadband – $ 65 billion – after Biden reached a compromise last week. The new number represents a significant reduction from its original broadband proposal, which was priced at $ 100 billion. White House press secretary Jen Psaki said the decision was “all in terms of finding common ground.” The details are apparently still being worked on.

But while the parties have agreed on a number, there is no consensus on how broadband should actually work and who should be given priority by federal efforts. Reaching an agreement on funding for broadband is only part of the puzzle, and there are deep fault lines and disagreements about what that funding should achieve, which could have a significant impact on who gets connected and who really benefits from it . Republicans and Democrats alike have said that the pandemic has highlighted the vital role the internet plays in everyday life, but they have fundamental disagreements over what portion of the cake traditional cable operators should have.

One of the main disagreements is a long-simmering debate about the idea of ​​municipal broadband. In the United States, some local governments, nonprofits, and cooperatives have made long-term investments to build their own broadband networks without relying on the private sector. Biden is a huge fan of this approach. The White House calls these municipal broadband networks “providers with less profit pressure and with an obligation to serve entire communities”. Large cable companies in particular, which benefit from being the only provider in many areas, do not like this competition and have even advocated a ban. Broadband Now, an Internet provider website, says municipal broadband is now restricted in at least 18 states.

Nevertheless, some efforts have succeeded. Despite resistance, the Electric Power Board from Chattanooga, Tennessee, and cable provider Comcast (Comcast is an investor in Vox Media, to which Recode belongs), succeeded in building its own gigabit broadband network. Biden wants efforts such as Chattanooga’s to be eligible for funding from his infrastructure plan.

But Congress Republicans oppose it, saying there are places where local government is not working and has left taxpayers in debt, as the Senate Republican Policy Committee argued in a letter released earlier this month. Some House Republicans have even proposed national laws restricting these types of networks. NCTA, a lobbying group that represents a wide range of media and telecommunications companies including Comcast, Charter, and Cox Communications, has said of Biden’s plan that “common goals are not served by falsely claiming that the entire network is ailing and that it is the solution “is either to prioritize state networks or to manage private networks in micromanagement.”

“Cable and phone lobbyists have long argued that this is socialism, that it harms American businesses,” Christopher Mitchell, who heads the community broadband program at the Institute for Local Self-Reliance, told Recode. “The lobbyists who wanted to stop broadband competition realized that the Republican Party’s ideology is deeply skeptical of public investment.”

Public versus private investment isn’t the only fault line in the recent bipartisan consensus on broadband funding, however. There has also been long and persistent disagreement between Republicans and Democrats about what kind of technology should be used to enable these Internet connections. Currently, many are running their Internet home on coaxial cable networks, while some still rely on DSL copper phone lines, which are even slower. Biden believes that should change and that US broadband should be high-speed and future-proof, a term Republicans have interpreted as the code for fiber. Fiber optic, so argued proponents, would last for decades and could easily be adapted to ever higher speed requirements.

Republicans have said, however, that Biden’s definition of high-speed and “future-proof” would call too many households into question for subsidies that could go to people who don’t necessarily need internet updates. You have also accused Democrats of subsidizing “faster speeds” [that] Enabling more generous internet usage ”, like streaming content in 4K, which could complete innovations by putting their“ thumb on the scales ”by prioritizing one type of technology: fiber. Back in February, Republicans on the House of Representatives Energy and Trade Committee proposed a series of 28 bills that focus on deregulation, and during a March hearing, Rep. Bill Johnson (R-OH) called the focus on building a high-speed -Internets as “exactly” the opposite of what has to happen, “and would leave rural Americans behind.

There are companies that drive fiber optics on their own or need them to expand 5G networks. But legacy cable providers are likely to benefit if the government doesn’t give this type of connection a priority. (NCTA, the lobby group, for example, has argued that federal funds should instead be focused on areas with very poor or no internet connectivity.) Traditional cable providers, who may be the only Internet providers for some consumers, don’t necessarily want to compete with new fiber-optic options, said Ernesto Falcon, senior legal counsel at the Electronic Frontier Foundation, referring to companies like Comcast and Charter.

But Biden and those who support his plan say it is important to focus on these more advanced systems as the demand for internet will only increase and the country will have to invest in technology that can last for decades.

“This is a one-time investment we can make,” said Greg Guice, director of government affairs for Public Knowledge. “If you rely on some of these older technologies like copper, you just can’t get the speed out of them that you really need to meet the kind of demands that the network will have.”

Underlying tensions between Republicans and Democrats are different views on the scope of the challenge. Republicans and cable companies want to focus the broadband discussion on areas and communities that currently have very little coverage. They argue that the move to high speed and fiber shouldn’t be the focus. But Democrats and some Republicans have said the country should have a higher standard for internet speeds. This approach, explains Guice, would give more support to the expansion of fiber optics and also formulate the broadband issue in such a way that suburbs and urban communities with no internet connection are included.

While the Federal Communications Commission estimates that approximately 30 million Americans do not have access to broadband, these are not the people who technically have access to the Internet but cannot afford it, a problem that is exacerbated in areas where it’s just an internet provider. There is also the process known as “digital redlining” in which ISPs have left colored communities and lower-income communities with poorer Internet access.

It is not clear whether these tensions will be resolved in this recent infrastructure debate. After all, the pandemic has made it clear that networking isn’t just about internet access. It’s important to have internet that is good enough to support multiple people using multiple devices at the same time, and who may need that connection to learn from work to going to a doctor’s appointment. Proponents of future security say that not only will fiber last longer, but also that demand for Internet will not decline or stagnate. It will only grow.

As Guice says, “Would we think it would make sense to add a dirt road to I-95?”

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