Biden’s broadband plan would leave rural America behind

The government shouldn't rely on fiber to close the digital divide, Eric Peterson argues.

Biden’s broadband plan would leave rural America behind

The plan promises to "future-proof" networks, which sounds excellent until you realize this translates to fiber only.

Photo: Al Drago/Getty Images

Eric Peterson is the Director of the Pelican Center for Technology and Innovation in Louisiana.

As COVID-19 turned high-speed internet from a luxury to a necessity, it became clear that too many rural areas in America lacked access to broadband. The Biden administration is looking to close this digital divide with the American Jobs Plan, which would spend $100 billion on broadband infrastructure. But despite such a large price tag, the plan would fail to close the digital divide as it would prioritize urban and suburban areas over rural ones. If Biden persists with this design, rural areas will continue to get the short end of the stick.

The plan promises to "future-proof" networks, which sounds excellent until you realize this translates to fiber only. Make no mistake: Fiber remains the backbone of America's internet infrastructure, but is often ill-suited for reaching the more remote corners of America. Often these areas go unserved because there aren't enough people to justify laying fiber. There are also geographical challenges to building infrastructure in rugged terrain, like the swamps of Louisiana or mountains of Colorado.

Technologies such as fixed wireless internet and low-Earth orbital satellites from companies like Starlink offer better solutions to the problem. These technologies offer high speeds to even the most remote locations. Starlink also promises coverage of the whole United States by 2022. So why does Biden's plan prioritize fiber government deployment rather than the technology best positioned to reach rural America?

One possible explanation is the recent push to redefine what qualifies as broadband from 25 megabits per second download speed and 3 Mbps upload speed to 100 Mbps download and 100 Mbps upload. The proposed change has little to do with consumer need, as the current speeds are fast enough to allow for virtual learning, telehealth and video streaming. And further, the need for symmetrical download and upload speeds make little sense outside of a Washington sound bite, as downstream traffic outnumbers upstream traffic 14 to one.

What this redefinition would do is classify massive parts of this country, which already have high-speed internet, as "unserved," thus allowing billions of government subsidies to flow to already served urban and suburban areas and once again leaving rural America at the back of the line.

The promise to prioritize government-owned networks also follows the trend of favoring urban over rural America. Government-run networks have been shown to be costly with little benefit to taxpayers. In addition, most of these networks are created in areas with dense populations where people already have access to multiple high-speed internet providers.

Governments in rural areas have little incentive to set up a network to close the digital divide for their residents. Networks in rural areas not only have high upfront costs but also low adoption rates. So even with a one-time cash infusion, local governments can be saddled with networks that aren't profitable and they don't have the technical expertise to run. Funding these networks won't close the digital divide. It'll just be another expensive lesson that the government is ill-suited to provide complicated and costly internet service to its residents.

That's not to say the government shouldn't play a role in closing the digital divide. The FCC has already allocated nearly $10 billion over 10 years to close the digital divide by targeting unserved areas through its Rural Digital Opportunity Fund. Billions more are also on the way once accurate maps are completed. Likewise, states and localities have received billions from the American Rescue Plan and can spend that money to focus on unserved residents. Are billions more in spending needed before these funds have gone out the door?

There is no doubt that closing the digital divide is more important than ever. But rather than simply throwing money at the problem, the government should focus its efforts on helping areas that don't have any access to the internet and improving affordability in areas that do. Biden's broadband plan fails to address either of the main drivers of the digital divide and, worse, would once again leave rural America behind.

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