Should There be a Broadband New Deal?

On a make-shift stage before 50,000 people in rural Barnesville, Georgia, the President of the United States stressed the importance of universal connectivity. He insisted that the lack of access to connectivity created “an economic unbalance in the nation as a whole…an unbalance that can and must be righted, righted for the sake of the…Nation.”

No, this speech was not made by a 21st century president about universal broadband access. Admittedly, these are selectively edited portions of a speech given by President Franklin Roosevelt on August 11, 1938, at the dedication of a co-op to bring electrical power to local farmers.

This co-op was part of the Rural Electrification Administration (REA), FDR’s New Deal program to deliver electricity to the most underserved areas of the country. In 1930, around two-thirds of U.S. homes were wired for electricity, but only 10% of farms, stalling all manner of economic and social growth. So, under the REA, Congress appropriated $410 million—$7.5 billion in 2020 dollars—over 10 years to fund loans for the establishment of non-profit public-private power cooperatives.

How successful was the REA? By 1950, close to 80% of American farms were connected to electrical power. And the REA still exists today, under the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) as the Rural Utilities Service (RUS).

Widening Digital Divide

Many in the broadband community point to Roosevelt’s rationale for and the subsequent success of the REA as they advocate for a coordinated national response to the growing digital gap in the U.S., even more brutally exposed thanks to COVID-19. Common Sense Media recently reported that up to 16 million children across the nation lack adequate internet access.

It’s not as if no one is addressing this connectivity chasm—the problem is there are too many, and few are coordinating their efforts.

For instance, there’s the FCC’s Rural Digital Opportunity Fund designed “to bring high-speed fixed broadband service to rural homes and small businesses that lack it.” There’s the REA-like Broadband ReConnect loan program under the aforementioned USDA to advance construction of rural broadband networks. Supplementing the federal response are a plethora of state, local, corporate and non-profit groups all working toward similar digital divide-bridging attempts. For example, T-Mobile has launched Project 10 Million, a five-year, $10 billion project to bring connectivity to 10 million students. Connected Nation is a national non-profit that has been working to bring high-speed connectivity, hardware and literacy to needy communities in 35 largely midwestern or southern states for 20 years.

These and other efforts are worthy and relatively successful in their ways. But like all fragmented approaches, too many cooks usually fail to produce a palatable broth.

Define ‘Internet’

There seems to be agreement on the overarching goals of all the varying attempts to bridge the digital divide: bringing high-speed connectivity, computer literacy and actual PC hardware to the technology disadvantaged. But lacking a centralized REA-like overseer, there is a great deal of conflict over exactly what is needed, who needs it, where it is needed and who supplies it. And these conflicts only further fragment strategy, tactics, methodologies and especially funding.

Arguably the most obvious problem is what, exactly, IS, the internet?

Electricity and the internet have curiously mirrored development paths that eventually could result in the same end. Electricity was developed and distributed by private companies. When it became clear that the pure profit motive was creating a power gap, the government stepped in to regulate the industry and even out its distribution. Conversely, the internet was developed by the government until private industry co-opted and asserted control over its distribution. As it did with electricity distribution in the 1930s, the profit motive, in part, has created our current have-have not internet connectivity conundrum.

So, is the need for internet connectivity as critical to society, government and commerce in today’s world as the need for power connectivity was in the 1930s? If yes, then should the internet be re-defined as a utility as electricity was?

Define ‘Adequate’

Even if the internet/utility issues are settled, a plethora of issues will continue to cripple a coordinated effort to bring adequate internet connectivity to all.

First off, what, exactly, is “adequate” connectivity?

In December 2015, the FCC published its Household Broadband Guide with recommendations for what speeds consumers need to perform different online functions. While these household broadband recommendations have been frequently updated, the 25 Mbps download and 3 Mbps upload definition for home high-speed broadband remains from 2015.

But what constituted “high-speed broadband” in 2015 is laughable in 2020, and becomes more ludicrous with every passing day. In December 2019, Public Knowledge, Common Cause and Next Century Cities submitted a request to the FCC to update this definition of “high speed” to 100/10. The FCC rejected this update in its “2020 Broadband Deployment Report.”

Another issue is determining what areas need assistance.

The FCC maintains a Fixed Broadband Deployment map used to determine what communities need connectivity assistance. While there’s near-universal, bipartisan agreement that the map is inaccurate, no one agrees how to fix it and who is responsible for fixing it. Democrats point at the FCC, and FCC chair Ajit Pai blames Congress. As usual, political bickering has stalled funding and progress for fixing the map. And without an accurate map, determining who needs connectivity and getting it to them is stalled.

Not only is the FCC broadband map bad, but it is also incomplete—it indicates only fixed wired providers, cable and fiber ISPs. Except, wired ISPs find it too expensive to wire remote areas. So, the U.S. countryside has a plethora of local “fixed wireless” providers, which deploy cellular technology to provide last-mile connectivity to rural homes, and nationwide satellite providers such as Viasat, Hughes and, soon, Amazon’s Kuiper and SpaceX’s Starlink. Except wireless internet plans can cost up to 10 times more a month compared to wired internet, and rarely deliver more than 25/3 service. How to make internet access, wired or wireless affordable to all is a huge part of solving the digital divide.

This is just a cursory review of the issues complicating the efforts to ensure every American can access the internet to work, learn and participate in the body politic and economic. What’s clear to all is that the current, mostly valiant attempts to bridge the digital divide is a cacophonous mess. What is needed is an authoritative and coordinated FDR-style Broadband New Deal. As FDR himself insisted back in 1938, connectivity “is a modern necessity of life (and) not a luxury. That necessity ought to be found in every village, in every home and on every farm in every part of the wide United States.”