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Biden's big infrastructure plan targets broadband access, puts subsidy programs on notice

President Biden's massive, $2 trillion infrastructure-focused "American Jobs Plan" includes an outlay of $100 billion to bring affordable, reliable broadband to all areas while also putting high-speed Internet subsidy programs on notice.

There's not a lot of meat on the bones yet, but the broadband-facing piece of the eight-year spending plan shoots for "100 percent coverage," with elements set aside for infrastructure on tribal lands. It also prioritizes the building of "future proof" broadband infrastructure in unserved and underserved areas. Future proof isn't defined in the outline of the plan, but many current broadband access plans tend to focus on gigabit-class speeds and fiber-based networks.

That piece of The American Jobs Plan, designed to "revitalize America's digital infrastructure," also takes a veiled swipe at private telcos and cable operators. It aims to prioritize support for broadband networks "owned, operated by, or affiliated with local governments, non-profits, and co-operatives – providers with less pressure to turn profits and with a commitment to serving entire communities."

Per the infrastructure plan's fact sheet, Biden's plan also appears to put subsidization programs for broadband infrastructure and broadband service pricing on notice.

"While the President recognizes that individual subsidies to cover internet costs may be needed in the short term, he believes continually providing subsidies to cover the cost of overpriced internet service is not the right long-term solution for consumers or taxpayers," the fact sheet explains. "Americans pay too much for the internet – much more than people in many other countries – and the President is committed to working with Congress to find a solution to reduce internet prices for all Americans, increase adoption in both rural and urban areas, hold providers accountable, and save taxpayer money."

Plan seeks pricing transparency, level playing field for municipals

Biden's plan, introduced following the recent passage of the $1.9 trillion coronavirus relief plan, also seeks more pricing transparency among ISPs and for "lifting barriers" that, it claims, prevents municipals and rural electric co-ops from competing with private providers.

The focus and rhetoric tied to the infrastructure plan could add to industry concerns that the Biden administration will soon put pressure on the FCC to reinstate network neutrality rules that were rolled back during the Trump administration.

Some analysts believe that those concerns could be offset by several stimulus projects that will likely spur more broadband subscriber growth. However, Biden's apparent targeting of individual subsidy plans – though no specific project have been identified yet – could shrink that view a bit.

Update The NCTA – The Internet & Television Association took issue with some of the angles of the plan, including the pricing piece and its suggestion that the government is better suited than private sector technologists to build and operate the Internet. The NCTA also hit back at the plan's lumping of broadband with other elements of US infrastructure, such as roads and bridges, that are in need of help.

"This shift is encouraged by mistakenly lumping in our successful modern digital networks with our decaying roads, bridges, waterways and electric grids," Michael Powell, NCTA's president and CEO, said in a statement. "Simply put, the high caliber of our broadband networks kept millions of Americans safe and will continue to revolutionize work, healthcare, education and more."

Powell allowed that government has a role to play in getting networks deployed to areas that lack service, but he argued that "those targeted, shared goals are not served by suggesting wrongly that the entire network is ailing and that the solution is either to prioritize government-owned networks or micromanage private networks, including the unfounded assertion that the government should be managing prices."

Broadband the "new electricity"

The plan's digital infrastructure piece also references the 1936 Rural Electrification Act, which made low-cost loans to non-profit co-ops (farmers, mostly) available for the purpose of deploying electricity to the rural US.

"Broadband internet is the new electricity," the fact sheet declares. "It is necessary for Americans to do their jobs, to participate equally in school learning, health care, and to stay connected."

Other components of Biden's plan includes $621 billion toward transportation and improvements to roads, bridges and railways; $400 billion for home care services for aging and disabled Americans; $300 billion to beef up manufacturing; $213 billion toward housing improvements; $180 billion for infrastructure-focused R&D; $111 billion to rebuild the US's water infrastructure; $100 billon toward the building of more public schools and upgrading existing ones; $100 billion for workforce development; and $18 billion to upgrade Veterans Affairs' hospitals.

Early pushback

To pay for it all, the plan proposed a mix of corporate tax hikes, a global minimum tax, and a special tax on "book income" targeted to large corporations.

But, this being politics, Biden's crew will need to do some major convincing to push it all through. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) has already said he's "not likely" to support the plan.

"It's like a Trojan horse," McConnell reportedly said today. "It's called infrastructure, but inside the Trojan horse it's going to be more borrowed money, and massive tax increases on all the productive parts of our economy."

Meanwhile, Biden believes his infrastructure plan, if passed alongside his Made in America corporate tax plan, will be "fully paid for within the next 15 years and reduce deficits in the years after."

— Jeff Baumgartner, Senior Editor, Light Reading

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