President Biden on Monday is set to announce more than $42 billion to expand high-speed internet access nationwide, commencing the federal push to help an estimated 8.5 million families and small businesses finally take advantage of modern-day connectivity.
In a preview of Biden’s planned remarks, White House officials described the new infrastructure project as reminiscent of the government’s work to electrify the nation’s darkened heartland in the late 1930s, when more than 90 percent of farms had no electric power in the face of high costs and prohibitive terrain.
Roughly nine decades later, the administration believes that rural communities suffer from a similar disparity known as the “digital divide” — the persistent gap between the families, workers and employers that have high-speed internet access and those that do not. Even in a time of self-driving cars, commercial spaceflight and artificial intelligence, roughly 7 percent of the United States still does not have broadband service that meets the government’s minimum standards, according to new federal estimates.
But the president’s announcement marks only the beginning of the process, which will largely will see states devise their own plans for how and where to deploy speedy internet. And the success or failure of Biden’s new campaign hinges on factors that have bedeviled his predecessors — from the steep price tag and complicated nature of broadband build out, to the lingering gaps in the government’s understanding about who needs connectivity.
“For millions of Americans, in rural communities in particular, the internet is down a lot, [and] sometimes there’s not even any access,” said Jeffrey Zients, the White House chief of staff, in a briefing with reporters. “We all know in our day-to-day lives how internet access is not nice to have at this point; it’s a need-to-have.”
For decades, the U.S. government has spent billions of dollars annually to deploy speedy internet service nationwide — only to struggle to ensure those sums benefit the communities that need it most. But the lagging federal campaign took on new energy and importance during the coronavirus pandemic, which demonstrated how the internet had become essential for daily life.
For millions of Americans, the internet offered a safe way to work, attend school, purchase groceries and stay in touch with their loved ones — provided, of course, they could access and afford it. In one 2021 survey from the Pew Research Center, 60 percent of lower-income broadband users said they often or sometimes struggled during the pandemic to use online services as a result of slow speeds. Nearly half said they also worried at the time about their ability to afford their internet bills.
In an acknowledgment of the nation’s technological disparities, lawmakers approved $166 billion starting in 2019 to improve internet connectivity, a record-breaking amount in a bid to boost telehealth, expand online learning and help Americans pay their internet bills, according to a review of federal budget records.
“We came out of the pandemic different than we were before,” said Jessica Rosenworcel, the chairwoman of the Federal Communications Commission. “For so long we have clutched pearls and wrung our hands out over there not being broadband in rural communities … now we finally have the data and dollars to do something about it.”
That new federal campaign included $42.5 billion for the Broadband Equity Access and Deployment Program, known as BEAD, which Congress enacted as part of a sprawling 2021 law to improve the nation’s infrastructure. On Monday, the White House plans to announce how it is divvying up that money among states, before the president heads to Chicago to deliver a speech touting his broader economic vision.
With the funding commitments in hand, states next must devise blueprints for how to bring broadband primarily to the homes and businesses that have no service at all. If they have any leftover funds, local leaders can then focus on improving internet connectivity for those with slow, subpar access.
The grant-making process is expected to occur over the next two years, according to senior administration officials, who briefed reporters on the unreleased details of the program last week on condition of anonymity. The aides said the timeline could help Biden achieve his goal to connect all Americans by 2030, though he would not be president at that point even if he won a second term.
“It’s really important we not leave any community behind with this project,” said Brandy Reitter, the executive director at the Colorado Broadband Office. She added that the historic level of funding meant that the United States has “one shot at it.”
Already, states like West Virginia are “anxious for the dollars,” said Sen. Shelley Moore Capito (R-W.Va.), one of the architects of the infrastructure law. She cited years of chronic underinvestment — and the state’s rocky, mountainous terrain — as the reason that roughly 270,000 homes, businesses and other locations still lack internet access.
“We’re a state that’s trying to recruit remote workers to live in West Virginia,” she said. “But if they can’t connect, they can’t work here, and that’s been an issue for us.”
On the opposite side of the country, Mark Vasconi, the director of the top broadband office in Washington, said there are another 239,000 locations in his state that don’t have service. To deliver quality fiber internet everywhere, Vasconi predicted it could cost Washington as much as $3 billion, perhaps more than the state is expected to receive. But he said some of the price would be offset by a requirement in the law that recipients of federal aid, including internet providers, match 25 percent of the funds.
“It is an astonishing amount of money to provide access to every location that is currently defined as unserved,” he said.
The exact amount that the U.S. government plans to allocate each state depends in large part on the total number of unserved homes, businesses and other locations within their borders. Nationally, the United States has identified more than 8.5 million such locations after a year-long effort by the FCC to remap the nation and its connectivity. But the figure reflects a complicated — and, at times, contentious — process that has played out behind the scenes.
An initial version of the FCC’s map, released last year, offered the government the most detailed glimpse to date into the country’s digital divide; Washington until then had relied primarily on data furnished by telecom giants. But it also spooked many state officials and congressional lawmakers, who felt millions of homes and businesses were missing from the picture. A drove of Democrats and Republicans soon called on the Biden administration to postpone any broadband funding announcements until the data could be cleaned up.
The Commerce Department ultimately opted against a delay, as it raced to disburse funds in time for its self-imposed deadline of June 30. That prompted the FCC to forge ahead with its work, and the telecom agency unveiled a new map last month to process roughly 4 million mistakes, according to federal records.
The fixes resulted in the U.S. government identifying roughly half a million additional homes, businesses and other locations that did not have internet compared with its first blueprint, the White House acknowledged this week. State officials heralded the updates, even as some raised alarm that there might be other missing communities, potentially cutting into the funds they expect to receive.
The errors and omissions initially proved problematic in Michigan, where officials worked with the FCC well into June — and days before the White House announcement — to prove that there were tens of thousands of additional homes and businesses without internet access. Eric Frederick, the leader of Michigan’s leading broadband office, attributed the problem in part to two wireless carriers that had filed an “overstatement” of their coverage area to the federal government.
After weeks of work, Frederick said last week he is “feeling pretty good about where we’re at,” but added of the haste in Washington: “Yes, we could use more time.”
“There’s definitely flaws,” he said of the map. “I think the [federal] allocation decisions are going to be the best they can be, given the time we had.”
In response, senior administration officials cautioned that each state still must embark on its own study to determine who does and does not have internet, a key task to determine where they will spend federal dollars.
“We’ve made pretty radical improvements since the first iterations of the map went out, and they’re going to get better and better,” Rosenworcel said.
State broadband officials — who are expected to join Biden at the White House on Monday — signaled they would be watching closely to see how the funding matches their local needs. Sally Doty, the head of the broadband expansion office in Mississippi, said she expected to receive one of the largest federal grants due to the state’s “large areas of unserved populations,” particularly in its rural areas along the Mississippi delta.
“I’m going to see what we’re allocated in Mississippi and take what we have,” she said. “We know it is probably not enough, even if we get the largest allocation — it’s probably not enough to reach every unserved [person].”