During the past year, Covid-19 drove much of our lives online—from remote working to telehealth appointments, virtual classrooms to Zooming with friends and loved ones—making us more aware than ever of how vital Internet access is to almost every facet of our daily lives. It is a core infrastructure and an essential utility—on par with water and electricity—upon which our basic ability to communicate depends.
President Biden’s proposal to expand high-speed Internet access as part of his infrastructure bill affirms that broadband is an essential public service. It embraces the government’s responsibility to counteract the market’s failure to provide adequate Internet access to millions of Americans. By prioritizing universal service, it offers a glimpse of what a more democratic Internet might look like. Although it’s far from a foregone conclusion that the proposal will be enacted, this moment provides us with an opportunity to push policy-makers to deliver on these promises while envisioning something even bolder.
The Biden Plan
The American Jobs Plan allocates $100 billion (from a total of $2.3 trillion in infrastructure investments) over eight years to “revitalize America’s digital infrastructure” and to “bring affordable, reliable, high-speed broadband to every American.” It seeks to help build alternatives to corporate Internet service providers (ISPs) by privileging “broadband networks that are owned, operated by, or affiliated with local governments, non-profits, and co-operatives.” Additionally, the plan calls for expanding broadband connectivity to Native American communities by dedicating funds to build infrastructure on tribal lands in consultation with tribal governments.
The Biden plan rightly recognizes that America’s digital divide is as much a problem of affordability as access. Americans pay some of the highest prices for Internet service in the world. As a result, millions of poor and working-class Americans—disproportionately communities of color—are priced out of high-speed Internet services.
Given this context, the Biden administration’s commitment to expanding broadband access through publicly owned Internet networks is praiseworthy. Where these networks already exist—and where telecom lobbies haven’t pressured state legislatures to pass laws restricting municipal broadband—they’re generally cheaper, faster, and more transparent than their private sector counterparts, despite lacking the economies of scale that mega-corporations like Comcast and Verizon enjoy. The city of Chattanooga, Tenn., for example, quietly launched its own fiber-optic network in 2010, and now offers at least a one gigabit-per-second connection to the 170,000 homes and businesses in their service area.
There’s clearly much to admire in the Biden plan, even if it’s short on details, and many progressive groups such as Free Press strongly support it. Yet it remains to be seen how the government will confront the broadband industry’s entrenched market power. Behemoths like Comcast and Verizon exert immense control over the Internet’s last-mile infrastructure. During the pandemic, these corporations have further tightened their grip, forcing hard-hit communities to plead with these giants for a modicum of reprieve from their exorbitant monthly subscription fees. As a recent damning Free Press report shows, these ISPs are enjoying record profits as they increase prices to their customers and reduce investments in their infrastructure. For instance, in Philadelphia—home to Comcast’s global headquarters—students living in low-income neighborhoods often lack the high-speed Internet connection they need to learn remotely. Meanwhile, Comcast’s profits are soaring.
For far too long, the broadband oligopoly has caused the digital divide to grow, especially through “digital redlining.” Therefore, it’s important that the bulk of Biden’s proposed $100 billion commitment goes to local governments and nonprofits to build publicly owned broadband networks and not to corporate ISPs. Government has showered big telecom companies with billions of dollars in subsidies over the past two decades to either upgrade or extend their existing infrastructure. Such efforts have consistently under-delivered for the public and over-delivered for the broadband industry. At minimum, we should mandate a return to Title II public interest protections, including reinstating net neutrality and limiting how much ISPs can charge their customers for Internet service before any corporate ISP receives public subsidies. We also must ensure that Biden’s proposed expenditure—though much higher than many expected—is sufficient to connect the 42 million Americans that are currently unable to purchase broadband (and not just the FCC’s woefully undercounted figure). It’s time we finally build an Internet worthy of its democratic promise.
Democratizing the Internet
Public ownership and governance of the Internet—the development of which was funded by the public —is essential as we look at the Biden plan and beyond. From ordinary people posting instructional cooking videos on YouTube to volunteers updating Wikipedia entries, our collective labor is what makes the Internet valuable. The Internet is our commonwealth, not the plaything of Comcast and Verizon. It’s a public good that yields tremendous positive externalities to all of society. Yet time and again, corporate ISPs have proven to be poor stewards of this public good.
While Congress and the FCC must also regulate and restructure Internet infrastructure, Biden’s plan is one step toward imagining a new social contract that guarantees universal broadband services. Incentivizing municipal broadband to challenge corporate ISPs’ political and commercial hegemony, the plan is a strong start. But municipal broadband initiatives tend to be highly localized and fragmented, with many communities unable to build their own networks. The federal government needs to coordinate and scale these efforts to build publicly owned Internet networks to ensure that all Americans have access to a “public option ” for their broadband services.
President Biden has likened his push to expand broadband access to New Deal efforts to bring electricity to rural America. To make good on that ambition—short of nationalizing our Internet infrastructure—Biden might take inspiration from the New Deal’s Tennessee Valley Authority, which modernized the nation’s electrical infrastructure while creating thousands of well-paying union jobs in the midst of the Great Depression. Only through a concerted effort at the federal level can we create the democratic infrastructure that we need, one that guarantees broadband for all.
Today we find ourselves at a crossroads. For too long, we’ve tinkered at the margins instead of confronting the corporate capture of the pipes, wires, and other infrastructure powering the Internet. Now we must take a firm stand: We can either have a democratic Internet that includes reliable and affordable access to all or a highly commercialized Internet that delivers profits to a few enormous corporations. We cannot have both.