The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Biden wants to get all Americans online. That won’t be easy.

A Viasat Internet satellite dish in the yard of a house in Madison, Va., on March 31.
A Viasat Internet satellite dish in the yard of a house in Madison, Va., on March 31. (Al Drago/Bloomberg)

PRESIDENT BIDEN’S infrastructure plan isn’t only about the physical world, but the digital one, too. The proposal pushes a whopping $100 billion devoted to bringing broadband to all American households. That’s the right ambition. But has the administration found the right way to achieve it?

The White House’s vision would finally catch policy up with this reality: The Internet has become critical infrastructure. What’s more, building this infrastructure isn’t enough; people have to use what gets built. Rural communities need to be wired with services residents can afford, but urban communities need help paying for the service for which they’re already wired. Only then will the country realize the economic gains that make universal access a good investment.

Solving the availability conundrum starts, as the administration has done, with acknowledging that the government needs to act. Any profits to be made by private companies have, for the most part, been made already, and what remains are sparsely populated swaths of land where firms would spend a lot to lay down fiber for scant return. The White House would likely offer incentives to providers, and it would privilege “future-proof” technology such as fiber-optic cables. Paired with minimum speeds and enhanced accountability, this should guard against pouring funds into efforts that cost providers less today but will become obsolete tomorrow.

From there, the details turn fuzzy. The reverse-auction system the Federal Communications Commission currently uses has met with criticism, yet it also enables the government to get a good deal on construction; a grant system could help smaller providers get in the game but would require ample resources to administer federally. The administration also wants to prioritize the construction of networks by local governments, nonprofits and cooperatives. Certainly, these actors shouldn’t be boxed out, as they are in the states that bar municipal-owned broadband altogether despite its success elsewhere. But private companies shouldn’t be boxed out either when they want to expand their coverage and when they could do so more efficiently and effectively than anyone else.

Affordability may be an even bigger challenge. Right now, some low-income Americans rely on the FCC’s Lifeline program plus a coronavirus emergency benefit. The White House is rightly cautious about creating a new entitlement that would vacuum up taxpayer money in perpetuity to match companies’ sky-high prices. The alternative is to reduce those prices — but how? The government may usher in some competition by bringing scrappier providers into the game, but the change won’t necessarily drive down costs enough to help the poorest pay for adequate plans. Indeed, municipal players are less likely to involve themselves in dense urban markets in the first place. There are more radical options, and administration officials say nothing is off the table. But Republicans in Congress would surely balk at anything with even the scent of rate regulation or negotiation.

The federal government is raising the key questions on broadband. Next, it needs to give some answers.

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