President Biden on Monday announced more than $42 billion in new federal funding to expand high-speed internet access nationwide, commencing the largest-ever campaign to help an estimated 8.5 million families and small businesses finally take advantage of modern-day connectivity.
The money, which the government plans to parcel out to states over the next two years, is the centerpiece of a vast and ambitious effort to deliver reliable broadband to the entire country by 2030 - ensuring that even the most far-flung parts of the United States can reap the economic benefits of the digital age.
In a formal unveiling at the White House, the president likened the new infrastructure project to the government’s work to electrify the nation’s darkened heartland in the late 1930s, when nearly 90 percent of farms had no electric power in the face of high costs and prohibitive terrain.
Roughly nine decades later, Biden said that rural communities suffer from a similar disparity known as the “digital divide” - a persistent gap between the families, workers and employers that have high-speed internet access and those that do not. Even in a time of self-driving cars, commercial spaceflight and artificial intelligence, roughly 7 percent of the United States still does not have broadband service that meets the government’s minimum standards, according to new federal estimates.
“It’s the biggest investment in high-speed internet ever, because for today’s economy to work for everyone, internet access is just as important as electricity or water or other basic services,” Biden said.
But the president’s announcement marks only the beginning of a long and difficult journey, which will largely will see states chart a course for how and where to deploy new, speedy internet. And the success or failure of Biden’s new campaign hinges on factors that have bedeviled his predecessors - from the steep price tag and complicated nature of broadband build-out, to the lingering gaps in the government’s understanding about who needs connectivity.
“It’s really important we not leave any community behind with this project,” said Brandy Reitter, the executive director at the Colorado Broadband Office, whose state is set to receive $826 million. She added that the historic level of funding nationally means that the United States has “one shot at it.”
For decades, the U.S. government has spent billions of dollars annually to deploy speedy internet service nationwide - only to struggle to ensure those sums benefit the communities that need it most. But the lagging federal campaign took on new energy and importance during the coronavirus pandemic, which demonstrated how the internet had become essential for daily life.
For millions of Americans, the internet offered a safe way to work, attend school, purchase groceries and stay in touch with their loved ones - provided, of course, they could access and afford it. In one 2021 survey from the Pew Research Center, 60 percent of lower-income broadband users said they often or sometimes struggled during the pandemic to use online services as a result of slow speeds. Nearly half said they also worried at the time about their ability to afford their internet bills.
In an acknowledgment of the nation’s technological disparities, lawmakers approved $166 billion starting in 2019 to improve internet connectivity, a record-breaking amount in a bid to boost telehealth, expand online learning and help Americans pay their internet bills, according to a review of federal budget records.
“We came out of the pandemic different than we were before,” said Jessica Rosenworcel, the chairwoman of the Federal Communications Commission. “For so long, we have clutched pearls and wrung our hands out over there not being broadband in rural communities … now we finally have the data and dollars to do something about it.”
The new investments included $42.5 billion for the Broadband Equity Access and Deployment Program, known as BEAD, which Congress enacted as part of a sprawling 2021 law to improve the nation’s infrastructure. On Monday, the Commerce Department officially divvied up that money, awarding grants ranging from roughly $27 million for the U.S. Virgin Islands to more than $3.3 billion for Texas, based largely on their local needs.
With the funding commitments in hand, states next must devise blueprints for how to bring broadband to those disconnected communities. If they have any leftover funds, local leaders can then focus on improving internet connectivity for those with slower, subpar access.
Appearing at the White House, Commerce Secretary Gina Raimondo on Monday described the money as a “generational opportunity,” while acknowledging the digital divide “isn’t a new problem we just discovered.”
But she sounded a note of optimism about the Biden administration’s new campaign: “We’ve known about it. Lots of presidents have talked about bridging the gap … but President Biden is making it happen.”
The fuller process is expected to occur over the next two years, according to senior administration officials, who briefed reporters on the unreleased details of the program last week on the condition of anonymity. The aides said the timeline could help Biden achieve his goal to connect all Americans by 2030, though he would not be president at that point even if he won a second term.
Already, states like West Virginia are “anxious for the dollars,” said Sen. Shelley Moore Capito (R-W.Va.), one of the architects of the bipartisan infrastructure law. The state, which is slated to reap $1.2 billion in new federal funds, has long struggled from a combination of chronic underinvestment and rocky terrain that can make broadband build-out difficult - leaving roughly 270,000 homes, businesses and other locations without internet, she said.
“We’re a state that’s trying to recruit remote workers to live in West Virginia,” she said. “But if they can’t connect, they can’t work here, and that’s been an issue for us.”
On the opposite side of the country, Mark Vasconi, the director of the top broadband office in Washington, said there are another 239,000 locations in his state that still don’t have service. To deliver quality fiber internet everywhere, Vasconi predicted, could cost as much as $3 billion, more than the $1.2 billion the state ultimately received Monday - but he said in advance of the award that the remainder could be covered by state and private investment.
“It is an astonishing amount of money to provide access to every location that is currently defined as unserved,” he said.
The exact amount the U.S. government allocated to each state hinged in large part on the total number of unserved homes, businesses and other locations within their borders. Nationally, the United States has identified more than 8.5 million such locations after a year-long effort by the FCC to remap the nation and its connectivity. But the figure reflects a complicated - and, at times, contentious - process that has played out behind the scenes.
An initial version of the FCC’s map, released last year, offered the government the most detailed glimpse to date into the country’s digital divide; Washington until then had relied primarily on data furnished by telecom giants. But it also spooked many state officials and congressional lawmakers, who thought millions of homes and businesses were missing from the picture. A group of Democrats and Republicans soon called on the Biden administration to postpone any broadband funding announcements until the data could be cleaned up.
The Commerce Department ultimately opted against a delay, as it raced to disburse funds in time for its self-imposed deadline of June 30. That prompted the FCC to forge ahead with its work, and the telecom agency unveiled a new map last month to process roughly 4 million mistakes, according to federal records.
The fixes resulted in the U.S. government identifying roughly half a million additional homes, businesses and other locations that did not have internet compared with its first blueprint, the White House acknowledged this week. State officials heralded the updates, even as some raised alarm that there might be other missing communities, potentially cutting into the funds they expect to receive.
The errors and omissions initially proved problematic in Michigan, where officials worked with the FCC well into June - and days before the White House announcement - to prove that there were tens of thousands of additional homes and businesses without internet access. Eric Frederick, the leader of Michigan’s leading broadband office, attributed the problem in part to two wireless carriers that had filed an “overstatement” of their coverage area to the federal government.
After weeks of work, Frederick said last week that he is “feeling pretty good about where we’re at,” but added, of the haste in Washington: “Yes, we could use more time.”
“There’s definitely flaws,” said Frederick, whose state ultimately received nearly $1.6 billion. “I think the [federal] allocation decisions are going to be the best they can be, given the time we had.”
In response, senior administration officials cautioned that each state still must embark on its own study to determine who does and does not have internet, a key task to determine where they will spend federal dollars. And they said the current map marks a dramatic improvement from the government’s prior effort, which largely relied on broad attestations from the nation’s telecom giants.
“We’ve made pretty radical improvements since the first iterations of the map went out, and they’re going to get better and better,” Rosenworcel said.
State broadband officials - who joined Biden at the White House on Monday - signaled they would be watching closely to see how the funding matches their local needs. Sally Doty, the head of the broadband expansion office in Mississippi, said she expected to receive one of the largest federal grants due to the state’s “large areas of unserved populations,” particularly in its rural areas along the Mississippi Delta.
On Monday, the federal government awarded Mississippi about $1.2 billion in new broadband aid. Even before the allocation became official, Doty said she was going to “take what we have,” adding of the work to come: “We know it is probably not enough.”