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Internet access for all is absolutely critical in the 21st century, which is why so many of the 2020 presidential candidates have spoken openly about rural broadband access and net neutrality laws.
While it’s great to shine a spotlight on the fact that there’s a broadband divide in this country, few of the candidates have said exactly how they’re going to fix it. Only Joe Biden, Pete Buttigieg and Elizabeth Warren have committed an actual dollar amount to the problem.
Bernie Sanders is the latest presidential hopeful to commit to a number: a massive $150 billion plan to expand high-speed internet access — a far cry from Elizabeth Warren’s $85 billion plan.
The question remains: Will it work?
High-Speed Internet for All through the Green New Deal
This Bernie Sanders internet plan is actually part of the Green New Deal, a congressional resolution introduced by Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York in Feb. 2019 to tackle climate change.
While the main goal of the Green New Deal is to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, there are other parts of the resolution that address societal issues such as economic inequality, racial injustice and, now, the broadband divide.
Sanders is recommending $150 billion of the Green New Deal to provide municipalities and states with infrastructure grants and technical assistance to “build publicly owned and democratically controlled, co-operative, or open access broadband networks.”
Other main points of the plan include:
- Requiring internet service providers (ISPs) to offer a Basic Internet Plan with broadband speeds at an affordable price
- Break up ISP and cable monopolies, restrict ISPs from providing content and unwind anticompetitive mergers
- Ensure broadband infrastructure is “resilient” to the effects of climate change
Why focus on “broadband” speeds?
Broadband is defined by the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) as speeds of 25 Mbps upload and 3 Mbps download, which actually isn’t that fast when you consider the average internet speed in the United States for 2018 (the most recent available data) was 96.25 Mbps download and 32.88 Mbps upload, according to Speedtest.net’s 2018 Fixed Broadband Speedtest Data report.
The 25 Mbps line, though, is the minimum speed recommended to be considered “high-speed” internet. The more devices you connect that use up bandwidth, though, the more speed you typically need, which is why you see many internet providers offer plans up to 100, 300, 500 or even 1,000 Mbps — but only in select areas.
The issue is that depending on who you listen to — the FCC or independent reports from Microsoft — anywhere from 21.3 million people to 162.8 million people don’t have access to broadband speeds. And according to a report by the American Customer Satisfaction Index (ACSI), 30% of Americans say their internet is too slow to meet their needs.
As part of the High-Speed Internet for All through the Green New Deal plan, Sanders is recommending that the FCC amend their definition of “broadband” to be 100 Mbps download and 10 Mbps upload.
“Today, high-speed internet is central to the basic functions of families, students and businesses. Small businesses often cannot exist without it. Access to health care often depends on it,” Sanders said on his website.
“Yet across the country, huge swaths of the population lack access to an internet connection or cannot afford the options available. Millions lack any internet provider in their area and tens of millions are trapped with only one option. High prices keep the internet out of reach for working families in both rural and urban areas.”
Let’s take a look at how the details shake out…
Provide $150 billion through the Green New Deal to build infrastructure and provider support
The Bernie Sanders internet plan is way more than what any other candidate is proposing (Warren is second closest with an $85 billion plan), so it’s interesting to see how that $150 billion is being allocated.
The majority of the money would go to funding grants to build “publicly owned and democratically controlled, co-operative, or open access broadband networks.” These grants would come with conditions, such as ensuring all projects cannot be subcontracted and have strong labor, wage and sourcing standards. Another condition includes grants going to projects that offer universal service, minimum speeds, privacy standards and affordable plans.
The High-Speed Internet for All plan would also set aside $7.5 billion of this Green New Deal funding to grow high-speed internet access in “Indian Country and fully resource the FCC’s Office of Native Affairs and Policy.”
Additionally, the plan calls for $500 million per year (the Green New Deal is based on a 10-year mobilization plan) for digital inclusiveness in the form of grants given to “schools, libraries, community centers, senior centers and other community-based programs to promote digital literacy, adoption and inclusivity.”
Another big initiative of the funding is building “resilient” communication networks and infrastructure that can withstand the effects of climate change — something that will require a lot of upfront funding as well as continual maintenance.
Sanders cited recent natural disasters — such as Hurricane Sandy in 2012 that left 8.5 million people in 21 states without power — as the impetus for this part of the plan. More recently, Hurricane Irma in 2017 left three million people in Puerto Rico without power or a communication network.
“With our $150 billion investment in resilient, affordable, publicly owned broadband infrastructure, we will ensure that communities stay connected during natural disasters. This communications infrastructure will ensure first responders and communities are ready to deal with the worst climate emergencies,” Sanders said.
Would it work?
The High-Speed Internet for All through the Green New Deal plan would more than fund getting broadband access to everyone in the country — based on the current definition of broadband.
The FCC oversees the deployment of broadband infrastructure and has estimated it would cost $40 billion to deliver speeds of 25 Mbps to 98% of America, or $80 billion to cover the country entirely.
The question becomes how much those costs increase if we increase the definition of broadband from at least 25 Mbps to at least 100 Mbps. Many providers have started using cable or fiber-optic lines to run higher-speed connections (vs. DSL lines). A single mile of fiber-optic line can cost $100,000 in some areas!
At a price of $100,000 per mile, the $150 billion plan could build 1.5 million miles of fiber-optic connections, which seems like a lot until you realize there were 4.18 million miles of road across the country as of 2017.
Require ISPs to offer a Basic Internet Plan with broadband speeds at an affordable price
No one wants to pay more money than they have to, especially for a service that has become essential in our society. This is why requiring ISPs to provide a Basic Internet Plan with broadband speeds at an affordable price is a great initiative for both increasing access and setting a baseline for pricing and speed plans.
Where things get a bit more nebulous is defining what “affordable” is and getting the ISPs to agree to it. This is something that Sanders doesn’t go into with as much detail. He never outright gives a number for “affordable” but instead emphasizes the need to “dramatically lower costs.”
“The internet was invented in America. We should be the world leader in providing fast, affordable service. We must also invest in digital adoption and literacy, ensuring when affordable service is provided, all can fully utilize the benefits,” Sanders said.
Would it work?
Currently, the average American is paying $60 a month for broadband internet; however, the starting price can vary greatly based on location, available speeds, type of service and more. A DSL plan of up to 20 Mbps might be $20/mo. in one place but $40/mo. the next town over, even if they’re from the same provider.
ISPs have maintained that their pricing is a result of the cost of investing in their technology; however, over the years many of them have consolidated to create monopolies. Although the FCC reports that 93% of U.S. residents have access to three or more internet providers, in practice, most people have a choice of two — cable or DSL internet.
This is part of the reason the former FCC chairman put strong net neutrality rules into place to halt or prevent ISPs from charging whatever they wanted, both for internet access and the content they’re now starting to control.
As of now, the system allows ISPs to charge whatever they want (and even increase their prices three times in 12 months). For an affordable basic internet plan to work, there’d have to be significant regulations — as well as incentives to the companies — put into place to change the way things currently work, which is why Sanders is also focused on his next point.
Break up ISP and cable monopolies, restrict ISPs from providing content and unwind anticompetitive mergers
In order for Sanders to realize his goal of providing an affordable Basic Internet Plan for everyone, he’d have to focus a lot on the regulation of the ISPs, which is why he’s also recommending they be regulated like a utility.
Under his High-Speed Internet for All plan, Sanders is recommending the FCC review internet prices and regulate the rates where necessary in order to ensure that areas without competition are not seeing unnecessary price increases.
“Large internet service providers have enjoyed government funding, protection from competition and light regulation while gouging customers with some of the highest prices for service in the world,” he said.
Would it work?
As with the idea of providing a Basic Internet Plan, changes to current regulations would be needed to break up monopolies and restrict anti-competitive mergers.
Part of his plan to do this also includes encouraging municipalities to invest in and build their own internet infrastructure (through the assistance of federal grants) to run their own networks similar to a water or electric utility.
Again, changes to regulations are needed to make this happen since 26 states have bans or restrictions against municipal broadband. However, the areas that have been able to implement their own municipal network (or even a hybrid where they build the infrastructure and a traditional ISP provides the service) have been able to see significant cost reductions in monthly prices.
Many of these municipalities are offering broadband internet for $40/mo. or less and in some cases, it’s even free! A 2018 study by the Berkman Klein Center for Internet and Society at Harvard University found that in the 27 markets where researchers could make direct comparisons between community-owned networks and private ISPs, 23 markets had community-owned networks that were between 3% and 50% cheaper than the lowest-cost service from a private ISP. So, we know that investing in municipal internet can work.
Ensure broadband infrastructure is “resilient” to the effects of climate change
Part of Sanders’s $150 billion plan is to invest in a “resilient” infrastructure that can stay connected during natural disasters and ensure first responders and communities are ready to deal with climate emergencies.
He cited recent natural disasters, such as Hurricanes Irma and Maria in Sept. 2017 and Hurricane Sandy in 2012, that left millions of people without power and communities without a way to communicate and coordinate relief efforts.
“Our outdated and dangerous national infrastructure is not ready to withstand impacts like floods, hurricanes or wildfires. When extreme weather events hit, communities can be left without the life-saving communications tools and information they need,” Sanders said.
Would it work?
The technology needed to build a better, more resilient communications infrastructure already exists. The main issue is the costs to build and maintain it. As mentioned above, a single mile of fiber-optic cable (which is the most resilient internet technology at the moment) can cost up to $100,000.
Sanders’s plan hopes to achieve this resilient infrastructure by implementing a “dig once” policy to install fiber-optic lines during road construction and other improvement projects, building a modern smart grid capable of managing high amounts of renewable energy and more.
The bottom line
The High-Speed Internet for All as part of the Green New Deal that Sanders is proposing doesn’t only come with a lofty budget, but lofty goals. Meeting these goals, though, would require significant change to current regulations and ways of working.
In order to fully realize every aspect of his plan, Sanders will need more than $150 billion. He’ll need the full support of both the House of Representatives, the Senate and multiple government agencies — something that isn’t guaranteed in government.