President Biden is expected on Monday to sign Congress' $1.2 trillion infrastructure package into law, which includes a whopping $65 billion to expand broadband access. The staggering investment marks a major turning point in the years-long effort to close the digital divide, with billions of dollars devoted not only to connecting rural America, but also to making internet access more affordable for the country's poorest.
"We are going to be talking about the digital divide very differently in the last half of this decade than how it's talked about now," said Blair Levin, former executive director of the National Broadband Plan.
But as difficult as getting the package through Congress was, getting the president's signature isn't the end of the hard part. Now, it's up to federal agencies, states and civil society groups to develop the fine points of the plan and build up the human capacity within their ranks to actually implement it.
The bill gives a substantial amount of discretion to the National Telecommunications and Information Administration to propagate rules and oversee $42.5 billion in spending on broadband infrastructure expansion. But the NTIA has been without a permanent leader since the beginning of the Biden administration. Last month, the president nominated Alan Davidson, previously the vice president of global policy at the Mozilla Foundation and a former Googler, to head up the agency. The Senate has yet to set a date for his confirmation hearing.
Even if Davidson sails through a quick confirmation, the NTIA will still need to build the institutional capacity to oversee the program. That's a hiring question as much as anything else, said Angela Siefer, executive director of the nonprofit National Digital Inclusion Alliance. "Can they ramp up staffing as quickly as they need to ramp up staffing? It feels like a very big job for an agency that hasn't had somebody in charge to dictate directions," Siefer said.
The bill prioritized broadband projects that target unserved communities — as laid out in the bill, that means communities that either have no broadband access or lack sufficient speeds. But determining where those unserved communities are depends on the existence of accurate broadband maps, something the federal government has struggled for years to produce.
"The gating factor is the mapping. We still don't have good maps," Levin said, noting that NTIA, states and the Federal Communications Commission are all in the process of developing maps. "There's still not any level of certainty as to what the maps are actually going to tell us."
Once maps are complete and federal rules are in place, states will need to build up their own internal infrastructures as well. That includes the ability to not only develop plans for their grant programs, but to distribute those grants and, just as critically, Levin said, to enforce that the proposals they're funding are actually implemented. "The state says, 'We're going to give you $30 million to build a fiber network.' How do you make sure they actually do it?" Levin said.
There are other wrinkles to be ironed out in the deployment of the $42.5 billion. For instance, the bill prohibits states from excluding municipalities from receiving grants through the program. But more than a dozen states across the country have laws on the books that ban municipal networks.
"The state of North Carolina is not allowed to prohibit cities from getting these infrastructure dollars and spending them to improve broadband, but North Carolina law doesn't allow [cities] to do that," said Christopher Mitchell, director of the Community Broadband Networks Initiative at the Institute for Local Self-Reliance. "It's going to be a good day for lawyers."
Add to all of that existing strains on supply chains and in the labor market, and Mitchell estimated it could be years before some broadband plans funded under this infrastructure bill actually get underway. "The supply chain is tight. The engineers are limited," he said. "There's nothing that can happen rapidly."
A head start
Those factors may cause trouble when it comes to actually building out broadband infrastructure where it doesn't already exist. But the bill also contains provisions that would make service more affordable and accessible where it does — money Mitchell believes could be deployed sooner. That includes $14.2 billion in $30 per month discounts for low-income families' internet access. That program, called the Affordable Connectivity Benefit, builds on the Emergency Broadband Benefit, which launched earlier this year in response to COVID-19. The EBB program has hardly been flawless, but the fact that it exists at all already gives the FCC, which oversees the program, a head start.
The bill also includes $2.75 billion in funding for digital literacy programs. That money will be critical to organizations like the National Digital Inclusion Alliance and its partners, Siefer said, in part because they will be able to use the funds to help connect people to the government's new broadband discounts. The EBB program, by contrast, didn't set aside any money for actual implementation.
"That's been a barrier of EBB," Siefer said. Enrollment in that program has, perhaps not coincidentally, been small compared to the overall need in the country. The $2.75 billion can also fund digital navigators who can help newly connected people get online.
In an effort to address what is often referred to as "digital redlining" — where wealthy communities have access to faster, cheaper connections than poor ones do — the bill also instructs the FCC to develop rules to address "digital discrimination." Within two years, the FCC will have to adopt "final rules to facilitate equal access to broadband internet access service."
But that process is likely to get messy, as the bill also instructs the FCC to take into account the "technical and economic feasibility" of requiring equal access. Levin warned that almost any ISP could explain their decision to build in one place over another with an economic or technical justification. And if they can't, Levin said, it's unclear that the FCC can actually force a company to build in one place or another anyway. "The real question is: What are they going to find, and if they find disparate treatment, what can they do about it?" Levin said.
Siefer is more enthusiastic about that aspect of the bill. "This will allow us to look at when it is not OK that a low-income neighborhood has been skipped by a provider," she said. "We need more than to just be upset about the problem."
She's encouraged by the fact that both President Biden's nominee for FCC chair, Jessica Rosenworcel, and his nominee for FCC commissioner, Gigi Sohn, are passionate about broadband equity. "That changes the dynamic of what we could get done," Siefer said.
Both Siefer and Mitchell cautioned that the Biden infrastructure bill isn't the end of the digital divide altogether. As technology evolves, there will always be gaps to fill, they said, and Mitchell in particular worries that the bill doesn't address the frustrations most Americans face regarding their ISPs. But, Siefer said, "This is an incredibly valuable down payment."