Tuesday, June 22

A Rural-Urban Broadband Divide, but Not the One You Think Of

Whom should the government help get superfast internet access?

The question is not addressed directly in President Biden’s multibillion-dollar infrastructure plan, which devotes tens of billions of dollars to expanding access to broadband but does not provide much detail about how the money will be spent.

But veterans of the nation’s decade-long efforts to extend the nation’s broadband footprint worry that the new plan carries the same bias of its predecessors: Billions will be spent to extend the internet infrastructure to the farthest reaches of rural America, where few people live, and little will be devoted to connecting millions of urban families who live in areas with high-speed service that they cannot afford.

“From an economic and society perspective, the most important thing to do is to get online everybody who wants to be online,” said Blair Levin, who oversaw a broadband project at the Federal Communications Commission during the Obama administration and is now a fellow at the Brookings Institution. “From a political perspective, the biggest political capital is behind accelerating deployment where there is none, which means in rural areas.”

There is a political and economic logic to devoting billions of taxpayer dollars to bringing broadband to the rural communities that make up much of former President Donald J. Trump’s political base, which Mr. Biden wants to win over. But some critics worry that the capital-heavy rural-first strategy could leave behind urban America, which is more populous, diverse and productive.

Connecting urban families does not require laying thousands of miles of fiber-optic cable through meadows and glens. In cities, telecom companies have already installed a lot of fiber and cable. Extending broadband to unserved urban households, most of them in low-income neighborhoods and often home to families of color, typically requires making the connection cheaper and more relevant.

But Mr. Levin, the former F.C.C. official, said municipalities had no cost advantage over cable or telecom companies. So the economics don’t support the idea that a municipality could provide service at a substantially lower price. And local lawmakers may not be that interested, given the other demands on local governments. “If I were sitting on the city council, I’m not sure I would give my money to that,” Mr. Levin noted.

That places the effort to expand broadband penetration into one of the more challenging areas of American politics: the debate over what is often disparagingly referred to as “welfare.”

Experts like Mr. Levin argue that getting near universal broadband use will probably require offering a permanent subsidy to make the service affordable to low-income families. And the government would have to persuade such households to subscribe to broadband by providing online services that are valuable to low-income families — in, say, health, education and employment — and helping them figure out how to use the technology.

There is not much of this in the Biden infrastructure proposal. A White House fact sheet said permanent subsidies were “not the right long-term solution for consumers or taxpayers.”

Subsidies, moreover, don’t poll well. Only 36 percent of rural adults say the government should provide subsidies to help low-income Americans buy high-speed home internet service. That compares with 50 percent of urban residents and 43 percent of suburbanites, according to a 2017 survey by Pew.

Early in May, the federal government began a $3.2 billion temporary program to offer a subsidy of $50 or $75 a month for low-income families to pay for broadband service. It is set to expire when the money runs out or six months after the pandemic is declared over, whichever comes first.

If made permanent, this could be a game changer for many American families. But such a subsidy could add up to $8.4 billion to $12 billion a year or more for 14 million households.

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