Infrastructure Bill Includes $65 Billion for Improving Internet Access and Affordability

These are the major internet-related provisions of the Senate’s Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act.

Internet bills get easier to read and compare. The legislation requires internet providers to use a uniform label to describe their service offerings and prices. The format, which is modeled on food nutrition labels, was proposed by the Federal Communications Commission in 2016 but then reversed by a new FCC chair in 2017. The intent is to let individuals easily make informed decisions when shopping for an internet provider and a service plan. 

Internet discounts become permanent. The Emergency Broadband Benefit Program, which offers monthly discounts to consumers of up to $50, was established by Congress in response to the COVID-19 pandemic to help low-income families afford their monthly internet bill. But it’s set to expire either when the pandemic is declared over or the funding runs out. The new bill allocates $14.2 billion to extend the subsidy indefinitely under a new program called the Affordable Connectivity Fund. It provides a $30 discount on service for qualifying households. And now, ISPs have to apply the discount to any internet plan a consumer wants to sign up for. Some participants have complained that ISPs were pushing them to choose higher-priced plans that would be difficult to afford once the discount expired. “The reported shenanigans of some ISPs to upsell our most vulnerable consumers as a condition for using the emergency benefit have been addressed in this legislation,” Schwantes says. “Allowing consumers maximum flexibility for how they wish to use their benefit will increase the effectiveness of this program.”

States get money to improve internet infrastructure. The bulk of the money, $42.5 billion, will go directly to states and territories to fund internet improvements. The intent is to focus on unserved and underserved areas of the country, those that lack any internet access or where consumers can receive only low-bandwidth speeds. At least $100 million is reserved for each of the 50 states, and another $100 million is to be split among American territories, such as Guam and the U.S. Virgin Islands.

Internet providers are required to offer low-cost options. Internet providers that receive federal grant money will be required to offer low-cost service to eligible low-income households. Advocacy groups including CR are hoping this rule will one day be expanded to include all internet providers, whether they receive federal funding or not.

Digital equity, inclusion, and literacy programs are implemented. The bill includes $2.75 billion for the Digital Equity Act, which will help states develop comprehensive plans to ensure equal access to the internet for historically underserved communities, and to fund projects that make the internet more accessible, such as WiFi hot spots in schools and digital literacy programs for seniors. The intent is to help close the digital divide, which tends to hit low-income families and communities of color the hardest.

The FCC writes rules to stop “digital redlining” by internet companies. The bill requires the agency to adopt rules within two years to address “digital redlining,” in which internet providers decline to build or offer access to broadband service in areas deemed unlikely to be profitable. Part of the FCC’s job will be to establish what it means to have equal access to broadband and prevent discrimination of access based on income, race, ethnicity, color, religion, or national origin. The FCC will need to determine what actions by a service provider would constitute a violation of those rules.

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