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Offering “affordable, reliable, high-speed broadband to every American” is what the White House has promised as a solution to solving the digital divide.
In early August, the Senate approved a $1.2 trillion bipartisan infrastructure bill, with $65 billion devoted to investment in broadband.
In the coming years, this could mean you will be eligible to receive long-term help with your internet bill, more low-income plan options to pick from and new or improved service in your rural community.
As large as this investment is, it remains to be seen whether it will be enough to close the nation’s digital divide for good. Most of the funds in the broadband section of the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act are budgeted for infrastructure expansion to rural areas that don’t have high-speed internet access. A smaller portion is set aside to permanently extend pandemic-era broadband subsidies.
The Senate passed the bill 69-30 on Aug. 3, with support from both Democrats and Republicans. The House is expected to pass the bill by October.
What’s in the bill?
Broadband is a relatively small slice of the infrastructure bill — just 5% of the total $1.2 trillion proposed — but it would still be the largest ever federal investment in broadband infrastructure.
$42 billion to expand internet access
This bulk of the money in the bill would be spent on the “Broadband Equity, Access, and Deployment Program.” This is spent on grants to entities “to bridge the digital divide.” That means building the infrastructure to provide high-speed internet access to every corner of the country. This money will be doled out by the National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA) within the Department of Commerce.
The bill gives the highest priority to “unserved locations,” which are defined as areas without access to the FCC’s minimum broadband speeds (25 Mbps download and 3 Mbps upload) and “a latency sufficient to support real-time, interactive applications” like Zoom or Microsoft Teams. In other words, these are places where you can’t reliably work or learn remotely.
$14 billion for low-income subsidies
The legislation would also extend pandemic-era measures like the Emergency Broadband Benefit (EBB) into an Affordable Connectivity Fund. But instead of the $50/mo. that the EBB provids, this would only cover $30/mo. for low-income households. While it’s significantly smaller, anyone making 200% of the federal poverty line ($25,760 for one person) or lower will be eligible, compared to the 135% in the EBB.
This program would be overseen by the FCC, which would also be responsible for creating rules to protect consumers from companies that push them towards more expensive plans, which has been an issue with the EBB, or make it difficult to switch providers.
$3 billion for digital equity, inclusion and literacy programs
This is sort of the “everything else” category for broadband in the infrastructure bill. $2.75 billion is allocated towards the Digital Equity Act, which declares that “achieving digital equity is a matter of social and economic justice and is worth pursuing.”
It funds a wide range of projects that aim to make the internet more accessible, like Wi-Fi hotspots in schools, digital literacy training for seniors and the affordability of connected devices.
$1 billion for middle mile infrastructure
The “middle mile” is defined in the bill as broadband infrastructure that “does not connect directly to an end-user location.” This is what connects the large broadband backbones running throughout the country to the “last mile” that goes to your home. That “middle mile” in between the two can be a major hurdle to providing internet access. According to a Benton Institute report, “Open-access, middle-mile networks can provide the savings that spur last-mile providers to build further and faster to reach residences.”
How will it affect the digital divide?
There’s no doubt that a $65 billion investment in broadband will have an enormous impact on the digital divide. The legislation addresses the two fronts that advocates have long argued for: expanding access and making broadband more affordable. But is it enough?
It depends on who you ask. One recent report estimated that bringing 25/3 Mbps speeds to all Americans would cost anywhere between $20 billion and $37 billion. But an FCC estimate from a few years ago put the number at $80 billion. That’s almost twice as much as what’s proposed in the current infrastructure bill, although the FCC has spent billions on rural deployment since that report was released.
While the price tags vary, most digital access advocates view the $42 billion towards deployment — on top of the $10 billion from the American Rescue Plan Act (ARP) passed in March 2021 — as an unequivocal victory.
Will that be enough to get future-proof broadband networks everywhere? Probably.
Regardless, access isn’t the reason people don’t have home internet — broadband plans are just too expensive for many Americans. In fact, the number of urban households without a broadband connection is 13.6 million, which is nearly three times the number of rural households, 4.6 million. In a Pew survey that asked people why they don’t have broadband, cost was the most common reason given, and it was listed twice as often as access.
On that front, opinions are a little more split. The Affordable Connectivity Fund provides a $30/mo. subsidy for low-income households. That’s $20 less than the Emergency Broadband Benefit, but more people will also be eligible. With average internet plans in the U.S. costing $64/mo., that would leave many recipients paying as much as $30/mo. Only time will tell how many people this discount would connect, but it’s undoubtedly a major step towards closing the digital divide.
What are internet providers saying?
Response from the broadband industry has been mostly positive so far, despite the requirement in the bill that providers that receive federal grant money offer low-cost internet options.
“We are encouraged that the bipartisan infrastructure deal directly addresses two critical elements of reaching universal connectivity — dedicating funding first and foremost to those regions without any broadband service, and providing financial assistance to help low-income Americans subscribe to this critical service,” cable trade group NCTA-The Internet & Television Association spokesman Brian Dietz said in a statement.
Other industry representatives have bristled at the notion that internet providers need to be forced to offer low-cost plans or expanded service. Xfinity, Cox and Spectrum already offer internet plans under $15/mo. for low-income households, for example.
Some in Washington continue to be chronically allergic to the notion that America’s broadband providers — today, right now — deliver world-class connectivity, affordable and valuable service plans, reliability and network capacity that have been a technological and economic boon and solidified our global digital leadership.
So far, no internet providers have commented publicly on the legislation, but that may change as the bill goes to the House for a vote.
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Written by:Joe Supan
Senior Writer, Broadband Content
Joe oversees all things broadband for Allconnect. His work has been referenced by Yahoo!, Lifehacker and more. He has utilized thousands of data points to build a library of metrics to help users navigate these … Read more
Edited by:Robin Layton
Editor, Broadband Content
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