November 27, 2022

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Technological development

How Biden’s “Internet for All” Initiative Can Actually Fulfill Its Mission

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Right now, close to half of the U.S. population is not using the internet at broadband speeds, either because broadband internet infrastructure does not reach them, they can’t afford the service, or they don’t have the skills or knowledge to use it. Given how the pandemic has made high-speed internet access an essential utility, this ought to be unacceptable in the birthplace of the internet.

Inclusive access to high-speed internet has many benefits: on top of ensuring connectivity across a wider swath of society, it ensures access to information and numerous services, such as e-commerce, telehealth, education, remote working, and entertainment. It can also quite literally save lives: As part of our research initiative at The Fletcher School at Tufts University, Imagining a Digital Economy for All (IDEA) 2030, established in collaboration with the Mastercard Center for Inclusive Growth, we studied the health impact of inclusive broadband; our study finds that a 1% increase in broadband access across the U.S. is associated with a reduction in Covid-19 mortality by 0.1% per 100,000 people, all other key explanatory factors being held constant. Inaction on America’s yawning digital divide is not a reasonable option.

In response to this problem, the Biden administration has launched the Internet for All initiative, which may well be the boldest digital inclusion project in history, and aspires to close an essential gap in the world’s most valuable and second most evolved digital economy. The funding for the initiative draws from an unprecedented $65 billion sum from the bipartisan Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act earmarked for the purpose of closing the digital divide. The stated goal is to ensure that “every American will have access to technologies that allow them to attend class, start a small business, visit with their doctor, and participate in the modern economy” by building broadband internet infrastructure, improving affordability, and teaching digital skills.

Unfortunately, despite its laudable intentions, the initiative will likely not be able to achieve its goals as it’s currently conceived. The program, as designed, could lead to a misallocation of resources, as well as inefficiencies and gaps in coordination and implementation. Right now there are three main challenges: the funding prioritizes covering miles over covering people, it lacks a national strategy and coordination framework, and many execution roadblocks will get in the way. Fortunately, each can be overcome.

Prioritizing Miles Over People

The flagship of the Internet for All initiative is the $42.45 billion Broadband Equity, Access, and Deployment (BEAD) program, which intends to direct money through the states based on proposals from the states (and in some circumstances, political subdivisions therein). The program distinguishes between two categories of need: 1) “unserved” locations, which lack minimum download and upload speeds of 25 and 3 megabytes per second (Mbps), respectively, and 2) “underserved” locations, where downloads are under 100 Mbps and uploads under 20 Mbps. The program’s top priority is the unserved, whose needs must all be met before the money gets to the underserved.

We analyzed the initiative’s investment principles and their potential impact, and found that this approach is flawed: it de facto prioritizes filling big gaps in broadband infrastructure over connecting a larger number of people. To be clear, both need attention. But as “unserved” locations tend to be communities in sparsely populated rural areas, meeting their needs would come at the expense of serving the needs of those in densely populated urban communities who live in proximity to the available infrastructure, but lack access to affordable broadband and sufficient education about its benefits.

There is a real tradeoff between serving one set of needs versus the other. In my earlier article on the U.S. digital divide, I noted the unfortunate reality that the broadband gap — in terms of people affected — is wider in urban areas: 3 times as many urban households (13.9 million) as rural households (4.5 million) live without a broadband subscription. Also, I had noted that, while $65 billion is a large sum, it is still short of what is actually needed to close all the gaps. If the money is disproportionately allocated to building out infrastructure covering many miles in sparsely populated areas with expensive fiber-optics, as preferred by the National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA), it severely reduces the budget for subsidizing the existing service in the urban areas to improve affordability to a greater number of the broadband excluded. Overall, we find that approximately 73% of the funding is likely to be aimed at increasing accessibility by building out infrastructure in rural areas, while only around 21% will address the affordability challenge, mostly in urban areas.

One of the goals of Internet for All was to close the gaps for communities of color. Unfortunately, the racial injustice associated with this potential mis-allocation are also significant: our analysis finds that in the 10 largest cities in the U.S., lower-income, majority non-white zip codes would generally be assigned lower priority, because they would be classified as underserved, not unserved. Nationwide, approximately 16.5 million of the 66.4 million Americans who cannot reasonably afford the cheapest internet-only plan in their zip code are Black, and many of these people are poised to be left behind.

Missing National Strategy and Coordination Framework

The Internet for All initiative acknowledges an essential duality: there’s a national responsibility to close the digital divide, but doing so requires locally developed solutions. This is because the underlying causes of the divide, the communities affected, the terrain in question, and even the social equity issues all vary dramatically from region to region. Allocating the federal money relies on proposals that draw upon inputs from state, tribal, and local governments. While this federalist approach is critical to the success of the initiative, it also promises to be fragmented, contentious, and inefficient.

Fragmentation

Right now, the federal initiative lacks common standards and national guidelines regarding many important factors. For example, local bodies are free to establish their own definitions of eligible areas, populations, and broadband speeds, along with mutually inconsistent statements of objectives, and metrics for monitoring and evaluating outcomes. Moreover, when it comes to affordability, states can pursue vastly different cures — e.g., mandating that companies receiving the infrastructure dollars offer low-cost service, offering subsidies to consumers, or taking steps to promote competition. While such flexibility seems reasonable, it is likely to lead to intense lobbying by companies to steer towards solutions that minimize government interference.

Disputes

A potential fallout of this fragmentation is that it opens the door to disputes among parties that ideally need to collaborate on proposals. Disagreements about what qualifies as “low cost” have already emerged. In some situations, the disputes will lead to legal challenges. For example, the BEAD program opens the door to funding municipal broadband networks, which could set up conflicts in at least 17 states with laws that prohibit treating broadband as a public utility.

Inefficiencies

The federalist approach to solving for the digital divide could give rise to inefficiencies and diseconomies. Indeed, according to an analysis from the Government Accountability Office (GAO), the current approach with more than 100 different funding programs overseen by 15 separate agencies is likely to result in sub-optimal use of resources. An example cited by the GAO is of the very real possibility of multiple agencies converging on the same broad area of need — a perfect recipe for duplication, wasted resources, and coordination failures.

Execution Roadblocks

As the states and territories prepare to act, there are many missing pieces that will hold up the execution.

For one, accurate maps of broadband coverage are hard to come by. Even in areas where reliable maps exist, the maps may suffer from a “Swiss cheese” problem that could make the information hard to act on: unserved areas are interspersed with those that are underserved or served, which would make it practically impossible to prepare infrastructure buildout proposals targeting only the unserved locations.

On top of this, preparing proposals requires data and experts who can analyze the data, prepare feasibility studies for the optimal options for closing the digital gaps, and develop credible proposals — these are likely to be hard to come by, especially in a post-pandemic environment of skills shortages.

Finally, once a proposal is funded, the state must contend with a shortage of technicians to install and splice fiber. Ironically, these gaps could be the greatest in the states with the greatest needs.

There are federal roadblocks, too. Because the NTIA must prioritize proposals that meet certain conditions — such as conforming to a Buy American requirement (as required by Congress) or to public-private partnerships even if the relevant partners may be hard to find — it could limit the number of competitive and feasible proposals.

What Can Be Done?

There are several actions that can be taken to address the challenges.

Establish frameworks to facilitate the best choices between “covering miles” and “covering people.”

Decision-makers must make tradeoffs guided by sound public policy and data that help strike the ideal balance between funding infrastructure buildouts and ensuring affordability. Our IDEA 2030 research team has created a state-by-state and city-by-city mapping of the current availability and affordability based on the best available information and a downloadable database, which can be used as a foundation to get the process underway. These resources will be continuously updated as more evidence accumulates.

Develop a national strategy for goals, performance measures, and milestones.

To minimize overlaps, duplication of efforts, and inefficiencies in the use of the resources, there needs to be clarity on roles and responsibilities of different agencies while ensuring coordination. The GAO recommends that this ought to be led all the way from the top by the Executive Office of the President, through National Economic Council.

In addition, the federal government ought to set targets for each state to meet in terms of the proportion of its population using broadband internet over specified timeframes. Then each state must make the case as to how it gets to those targets and assesses the tradeoffs across various options, such as investing in infrastructure buildouts, ensuring affordability and investing in digital literacy. The strategic framework can also help the NTIA consider waivers to its commitment to abide by certain requirements — as it has signaled openness to — in order to expedite approvals and ensure the best and most competitive proposals are elevated.

Bring key stakeholders together.

Stakeholders from federal, state, and local communities must be brought together to learn from each other and develop the best proposals. This should include public officials, members of the private sector, experts, and other key actors. Several non-governmental bodies, such as the Pew Charitable Trusts, which has already taken the lead on convening relevant parties, think tanks, such as the Marconi Society, and academic institutions, such as our own at The Fletcher School at Tufts or the Quello Center at Michigan State University, can play an important role data collection and research, informing proposals, and convening potential partners.

Organize capacity-building.

There is a need to organize training in many areas ranging from economic feasibility analyses to engineering to outcomes evaluation, along with facilitation and proposal writing. Beyond training those who are on the supply side, consumers need to be offered training as well in various aspects of digital literacy and becoming responsible and productive users of broadband access. Funds need to be allocated for such capacity-building programs across the country.

The challenge of getting the internet to all Americans has been compared to earlier transformational initiatives, such as bringing electricity to every U.S. household or the interstate highway system which changed the country. Broadband internet saves lives and there is no better time to close the gap as we look towards a post-pandemic future. For a change, we have a substantial sum of money to be invested and there will be competing demands on it. It is essential we make good choices, especially given the scale of the investments at stake and of the problem. Future generations will thank us for it.

This article draws upon research and analysis done by Abidemi Adisa, Christopher Compton and Christina Filipovic and research oversight by Ravi Shankar Chaturvedi and Christina Filipovic.

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