Evaluating Democrats' Vow of 'Internet for All'
Nearly all major Democrat presidential contenders have issued "Internet for All" promises, but only three candidates have put forth plans with any details on how they would achieve this kind of universal penetration: Senator Elizabeth Warren, South Bend Mayor Pete Buttigieg and former Vice President Joe Biden.
These policies are generally part of their larger plans to invest in rural America. After all, although 75% of Americans now consider Internet access a utility, more than one fourth of rural residents don't have access to broadband Internet speeds. Even in urban areas, lower-income residents can go without fixed-access Internet.
In this year's tightly packed field of contenders, Democratic presidential candidates are responding and trying to differentiate themselves by proposing plans to connect every American to the Internet.
But how feasible are these plans? What effects would they have on the broader industry? And how much could they cost?
Mapping the current state of broadband
One of the big bones of contention is characterized as the country's lack of a truly accurate map of broadband access across America.
"[The] FCC survey of fixed broadband and wireless coverage is inaccurate and perpetuates inequity," says Buttigieg in his plan.
Democratic presidential candidates are not alone in this concern. Service providers, municipalities and vendors also worry that incomplete data paints a falsely rosy picture of the country's high-speed availability. Indeed, President Trump's FCC has proposed changing its broadband map so it would no longer rely exclusively on census tracts and self-reporting, Christopher Mitchell, director of community broadband networks at the Institute for Local Self-Reliance and one of the experts consulted by the Warren campaign for her broadband plan, told Light Reading.
"I mean, 70% of North Dakota has fiber," Mitchell says. "It's just not accurately mapped. When you show people the amount of fiber we already have and what we're committed to, it's not as much of a pipe dream as people think."
Since everyone apparently agrees that an accurate map of broadband penetration is crucial to any plan, what's next?
Politicians' proposed plans
Warren's plan calls for $85 billion in federal grants, with $5 billion specifically set aside for tribal entities. A new, separate Office of Broadband Access within the Department of Economic Development would oversee the effort, according to Warren's website.
Buttigieg's plan, meantime, lays out $80 billion for broadband infrastructure. In addition, his administration would create a Broadband Innovation Incubator nestled within the National Telecommunications and Information Administration.
And Biden's program includes $20 billion to "expand broadband access in rural areas," but doesn't get much more specific than that, his website shows.
The differences in Warren and Buttigieg's plans lie not just in the amount of federal money but in authorized recipients of these funds. Warren's plan excludes for-profit ventures -- cable operators and service providers need not apply -- but would pay 90% of each construction dollar. Buttigieg specifically says he will "help foster private sector broadband competition and new network investment."
Both Warren and Buttigieg call for the overturn of state laws that ban municipal broadband networks -- laws that 25 states currently have on the books.
Would these plans work?
Proposals to overturn state bans on municipal networks likely would end up facing the ultimate legal challenge: the Supreme Court. "Under this Supreme Court in particular, we're seeing a lean towards states' rights," Harold Feld, senior vice president at think tank Public Knowledge, told Light Reading.
A Democratic president could avoid the Supreme Court by making the funds' availability contingent on municipalities' ability to create their own networks, similar to the approach the federal government took for distributing highway funds in exchange for raising the legal drinking age.
More recently, though, with legislation such as the Affordable Care Act and Medicaid expansion, some states rejected funds in favor of ideological issues -- so there is a chance such an approach might not work, Feld noted.
What about those big dollar budgets, especially from Warren and Buttigieg? The amount of money candidates promise is not immaterial to the success of a broadband initiative -- but it's far from the only thing that matters, said Feld and Mitchell.
One hurdle to efficient disbursal is a lack of auditing and the inability to claw back funds from recipients that did not perform as they should, Feld said. The method of disbursal -- whether a large amount available immediately or money meted out over a number of years -- is a factor in success, added Mitchell.
"When you have a lot of money available all at once, small firms often can't take it and ramp up operations that quickly," Mitchell said. That can exclude them by default.
The exclusion of for-profits -- whether explicitly, as in Warren's plan, or incidentally, as may happen with other plans -- isn't an automatic win for public interest, said Feld. Allowing small or regional providers to receive these grants can foster local businesses, but "that introduces a certain amount of complexity," he said. And complexity is something politicians might want to avoid.
There are other issues politicians are ignoring, according to advocacy groups. None of the plans explicitly address spectrum, Claude Aiken, president and CEO of the Wireless Internet Service Providers' Association (WISPA), said in an interview.
In certain rural areas where it's unprofitable for bigger telco providers to build networks, smaller local entrepreneurs have attempted to fill the gap with fixed-wireless broadband, which is often cheaper and quicker. Many smaller operators find it's not financially feasible to purchase spectrum as it's currently being packaged, says Aiken.
"For a presidential campaign, high dollar signs are currency," he added. "Money will make a difference, but you need a more holistic approach to things that includes other, less splashy aspects of telecom policy." That includes rethinking how spectrum is auctioned, Aiken said.
Politicians' promises about timing also concern some industry leaders.
"I worry about aggressive claims to connect everyone in America in the next few years," Mitchell said. "I'm afraid that will incentivize statistical games, rather than high-quality networks."
Still, Mitchell has some optimism. "This problem is not as hard to solve as people think."
— Oriana Schwindt, special to Light Reading. Follow her on LinkedIn