Senate infrastructure bill sets stage for massive effort to make broadband more available and affordable

Washington Post
By Tony Romm and Cat Zakrzewski

Senate Democrats and Republicans are inching closer to adopting more than $14 billion to help Americans who are struggling to pay for high-speed Internet, part of a package of digital initiatives that together amount to the largest one-time investment in broadband in U.S. history.

The debate has played out in the context of a roughly $1 trillion infrastructure proposal that the Senate began debating earlier this week. The bipartisan measure sets aside $65 billion total to expand Internet access, a pot of money meant to build out connectivity to unserved parts of the country while helping low-income families afford their bills.

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The affordability program, in particular, marks an expansion of the U.S. government’s existing efforts to help Americans who cannot afford reliable, speedy Web connectivity. Only after years of neglect — and a pandemic that forced Americans nationwide to conduct their lives primarily through the Web — did Congress in December pass a plan to help families pay for the costs of speedy service.

The infrastructure proposal extends that assistance, and potentially expands the number of Americans who are eligible for it, ahead of what would have been its expiration in a few months once its coffers ran dry. If adopted, the new measure would enable eligible Americans to take advantage of a discount of up to $30 per month, less than the $50 that participants receive today.

Democrats and Republicans have hailed the new spending as a critical component of their broader effort to invest in the country’s roads, bridges, pipes, ports and other aging infrastructure. Both sides have expressed unease with some of the package’s component parts — with Democrats seeking more aid and Republicans fearing the prospect of government overreach — yet they largely found consensus for now on the new broadband assistance.

“It is time for us to bridge America’s digital divide and build a 21st-century broadband infrastructure that will meet our country’s needs not only today, but for years to come to be future-proof,” Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine), one of the chief negotiators of the deal, said in a floor speech touting the work this week.

The Senate debate comes on the heels of huge investments in Internet access totaling more than $25 billion that lawmakers have authorized over the course of the coronavirus pandemic. Over multiple relief packages, lawmakers have tried to help more Americans get online, boost telehealth programs, and assist teachers and students inside and outside the classroom — injections of funding that could have lasting effects on the country’s Internet connectivity.

Passage of the infrastructure bill would add another $65 billion to efforts to close the so-called digital divide, the persistent gap between those who have access to high-speed Internet and those who do not. The White House estimates that about 30 million Americans live in areas where there is no broadband infrastructure to provide minimally acceptable speeds.

But the money still may fall short of President Biden’s ambitious goal of ensuring every American has access to high-speed Internet, because some Democrats initially said about $100 billion might be needed to address the country’s digital infrastructure. Even as they praise the contours of the new legislation, the shortfall left some public interest groups warning this week that their work is far from finished.

“On the whole, this bill is going to help connect a whole lot of people,” said Jenna Leventoff, senior policy counsel at Public Knowledge, a consumer advocacy group. “But there’s still a lot of work to do to make sure that we can fully close the digital divide.”

On Capitol Hill, Sen. Brian Schatz (D-Hawaii) described the broadband provisions as his “least favorite section” of the bill. Asked whether it did enough to address the costs of Internet service, he said this week, “I’m going to vote yes, but we’re going to have a few more bites at the apple as it relates to broadband policy.”

The plan’s centerpiece is a nearly $42.5 billion program that would provide money to states to ensure that broadband is deployed to rural areas and other regions of the country with inadequate service. Companies that receive funding under the legislation to build out networks would be required to offer low-cost plans to families who otherwise cannot afford Internet service.

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Companies including AT&T, Comcast and Verizon already advertise low-cost options for families who qualify, but not every carrier does, so the legislation opens the door potentially for new Internet providers to offer service at discounted rates, according to lawmakers. The prices of those plans would be determined by each state.

The bill also aims to dedicate $14 billion to extending the emergency broadband subsidies that lawmakers authorized as part of the most recent coronavirus aid package adopted in December. That program since the spring has provided subsidies of up to $50 per month toward the Internet bills for more than 4 million eligible households, with the aid paid directly to providers. Under the new infrastructure legislation, however, the amount is set to be reduced to $30 per month.

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Lawmakers reduced the amount of the rebate as they sought to keep the total infrastructure bill under the approximately $1 trillion price tag that its 10 Democratic and Republican authors first announced in June. The decrease in benefit amount so far has received a mixed reception among experts: The new funding prevents the program from expiring, but it may leave some participating families no choice but to accept cheaper, lesser Internet service in the future if they can’t afford to pay the difference in their bills.

“I think it’s the worst thing in politics when you take something away from people rather than giving them something,” said Jonathan Schwantes, a senior policy counsel for Consumers Reports. “The reduction will sting some families.”

But Schwantes added it was positive that lawmakers were extending the program and addressing some of its shortcomings after it initially began as a temporary, emergency initiative. “It’s a positive step forward that I don’t know 18 months ago that I would have imagined,” he said.

The extension of broadband subsidies was one of the more contentious points in negotiations over the bill, delaying lawmakers from finalizing their plan for days. As part of the debate, Democrats wanted to ensure that telecom carriers such as AT&T, Comcast and Verizon could not raise their monthly rates at a time when the U.S. government subsidized some Americans’ service. Party lawmakers put forward proposals during the talks to try to limit such increases, according to two aides familiar with the matter. They spoke on the condition of anonymity to describe private deliberations.

But Republicans rejected some of the proposals, which they perceived as price caps, viewing them as a back door to allowing the federal government to regulate Internet rates much in the same way that utility commissions oversee how much power and water providers charge for services. Telecom giants including the NCTA-the Internet & Television Association, which represents the industry’s biggest firms, had urged the GOP to fight the provisions, the two aides said.

NCTA spokesman Brian Dietz declined to comment on the association’s lobbying efforts, but said in a statement that the association was “encouraged” that the package provides financial assistance “to help low-income Americans subscribe to this critical service.”

Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.), one of the bill’s supporters, said the latest version is a “compromise.”

“The package certainly didn’t do everything I would have wanted, but in combination with President Biden’s executive order, it’s a good start,” he said in a statement. The president recently signed an executive order that took aim at industries in which certain companies dominate the market, including broadband providers.

The legislation directs the Federal Communications Commission to craft rules to ensure Internet companies aren’t abusing the program, such as by pushing consumers to sign up for more costly tiers of service. That push follows a Washington Post report that Verizon was telling customers that “old” plans weren’t eligible for the subsidy and pressuring them to sign up for more expensive plans. The company reversed course and began accepting the subsidy for old plans after The Post’s report.

Lawmakers also included a requirement that the FCC embark on an effort to require Internet providers to offer easy-to-understand labels about their rates and how they change after introductory offers to address long-running concerns that Americans’ cable and Internet rates too often differ or appear to increase from what’s advertised. These labels, which have been compared to the nutrition labels on food packaging, have long been a priority for Democrats and were recently promoted in an executive order signed by Biden earlier this summer.

“It’s encouraging to see some provisions around pricing transparency to simply help consumers understand what they’re paying for,” Joshua Stager, the deputy director of broadband and competition policy at New America’s Open Technology Institute, said in an interview.

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The legislation further allocates more than $2.7 billion toward “digital equity” initiatives, which seek to ensure that people not only have access to the Internet, but have the skills and training to use it to complete daily tasks. And the Senate bill tasks the FCC with taking steps to prevent practices known as “digital redlining,” ensuring that service providers don’t discriminate in their decisions about where they deploy networks on the basis of race or an area’s income level.

Consumer advocates, meanwhile, have warned that the package does not go far enough to address long-running competition concerns. An earlier bipartisan broadband bill would have overturned state laws that make it illegal to build municipal networks, which advocates say result in greater competition and lower prices for consumers. But that language was not included in the latest version of the infrastructure plan.

The omission was one of the “most disappointing” in the legislation, said Andrew Jay Schwartzman, senior counselor at the Benton Institute, which advocates for expanded Internet access. He also lamented that the minimum Internet speed requirements for the networks were slower than what Democrats initially proposed. They wanted download and upload speeds of 100 megabits per second, but the bill only requires upload speeds of 20 mbps, which experts have warned are not speedy enough for households increasingly reliant on video conferencing.

Despite these shortcomings, advocates said they were largely pleased with the deal.

“There will have to be more in the future,” said Gigi Sohn, senior fellow and public advocate at the Benton Institute. “It’s not the end point, but it’s a really strong beginning.”

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