How infrastructure funds will expand access to high-speed internet

The Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act signed into law by President Joe Biden on Nov. 15, 2021, was hailed by the White House and advocates as a historic investment to improve internet access in America.

As a researcher who studies internet policy and digital inequality, I believe the act should be celebrated as a historic moment for broadband, but not so much because of the money it brings to the table. Rather, it is because of the way the law treats internet access in America.

In the act, Congress finally recognizes that “access to affordable, reliable, high-speed broadband is essential to full participation in modern life in the United States.” In other words, reliable broadband access is like access to running water or electricity. It is essential infrastructure, the lack of which is a barrier to economic competitiveness and the “equitable distribution of essential public services, including health care and education.”

If decades of academic studies did not persuade Congress to enshrine this vision in law, the images of teachers in school parking lots and students outside fast-food restaurants connecting to remote classes during the COVID-19 pandemic probably did.

The law goes further by acknowledging that the “digital divide disproportionately affects communities of color, lower-income areas, and rural areas,” and orders the Federal Communications Commission to take action against discrimination of access based on income level, race, ethnicity, color, religion or national origin. This is an important recognition of the role that broadband access plays in perpetuating cycles of poverty and community underdevelopment.

Many studies, including my own, have documented how investments in next-generation broadband infrastructure are going to more affluent communities, often bypassing low-income residents in highly urbanized areas such as Los Angeles and Detroit.

Broadband investment by the numbers

The act provides $65 billion in new funding for expanding broadband infrastructure and promoting adoption. The largest of the law’s many components is the $42.5 billion Broadband Equity, Access, and Deployment program, which goes to the states to administer as block grants to expand broadband networks.

Getting people connected involves more than making broadband available. It also involves digital literacy training and raising awareness about connectivity opportunities. In a recent study in California, my colleagues and I found that only 1 in 5 low-income residents were aware of the Emergency Broadband Benefit, a federal subsidy program launched in early 2021 to address pandemic-related disruptions to internet access.

The act acknowledges this challenge and creates two programs — the State Digital Equity Capacity Grant Program and the Digital Equity Competitive Grant Program — that seek to build state capacity and promote broadband adoption through local community organizations. This marks a significant departure from the “build it and they will come” approach that has guided federal broadband policymaking for decades.

Making broadband affordable

The second-largest component in the act is the $14.2 billion Affordable Connectivity Fund, which subsidizes eligible households with $30 per month for internet access. The act also mandates that recipients of network deployment grants must offer at least one low-cost service option for eligible subscribers, but leaves the definition of low-cost and the eligibility guidelines up to states.

At the very least, I believe the FCC’s current affordability benchmark of 2% of disposable household income going toward phone and internet services should serve as the starting point for these discussions. My colleagues and I showed that current expenditure on residential broadband alone for most low-income households far exceeds this benchmark.

Not surprisingly, as many as 1 in 4 low-income households in our survey reported having cut essential expenses such as health care, food or clothing to pay for broadband since the start of the pandemic. Black residents, Native Americans and those who identify as Hispanic are twice as likely to report having to cut essential expenses to pay for internet access.

A departure from business as usual

Congress has long recognized the value of public investments in transportation, electricity and other essential infrastructure systems. These systems provide benefits for individuals, for businesses and for communities that go well beyond their price tag. They are considered essential because they connect people to jobs, to health care and to educational opportunities.

For too long, broadband was largely left out of this select list. By correcting course and enshrining a new vision, the infrastructure act is an important step toward affordable internet for all.

Hernán Galperin is associate professor of communication, USC Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism.

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