Here's the place that will make or break Biden's $20 billion broadband plan

Biden's broadband plan faces a serious test case in Appalachia's digital divide, where a potent mix of extreme poverty, lack of infrastructure and poor data present tremendous hurdles to the president's dream of closing the broadband gap.

For one public school teacher in Laurel County, Kentucky, proper education means making a painful and difficult decision. While her home is connected to AT&T's U-Verse internet service, it's only fast enough to support one person at a time. So in the midst of a pandemic-driven mandate for remote learning, she often has to choose between teaching her students and ensuring her own school-age kids are able to log on. 

"We have really done a horrible job making sure they have the means," said the teacher, who requested we withhold her name out of fear of losing her job. 

One pandemic-driven solution in Kentucky has been to put mobile hotspots in public school parking lots so kids without internet at home can keep up with schoolwork, but that isn't without its own flaws.

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"If they don't have gas money to come and get their child at the school when they're sick, they're sure not going to have gas money to drive to the school every day to download their assignments," she said. 


This week, as three winter storms race across the Mississippi and Ohio rivers to pummel the heart of the Appalachian Mountains, residents of the 13-state region once again face the potential loss of internet access -- if they had it in the first place. The cold snap threatens to compromise an aging telecom infrastructure already strained by a pandemic-borne tide of Zoom classrooms and telehealth consultations. Though much has changed in the past few decades, communities in this region face many of the same connection problems -- providers are too few, infrastructure too underdeveloped, speeds too slow and prices too high. 

Rural Appalachia's sparse strands of broadband wire and historically high poverty rates have made the region a fragile part of the wider web. In parts of rural Kentucky, for instance, AT&T has ceased offering its DSL line to new customers. Conversely, densely populated Louisville has access to 1 Gbps fiber-optic lines.

The stark contrast in broadband accessibility underscores the larger problem of a deepening digital divide that is leaving more people behind across a country struggling to deal with an economy-destroying pandemic. But across Appalachia, the stakes couldn't be higher. Educational, economic and health outcomes dipped perilously below national averages, and in the midst of the pandemic they're more closely tied to reliable broadband access than ever. 

Appalachia represents a key test for President Joe Biden's $20 billion plan to get broadband access to communities that don't have it. But Biden, who said during his campaign that rebuilding the middle class in America is the "moral obligation of our time," faces a myriad of challenges in closing the gap, from actually laying down fiber-optic lines to educating consumers and ensuring that prices are affordable. 

A report from the Population Reference Bureau, drawing on data from the 2013 to 2017 American Communities Survey, found the share of Appalachian households with a connected device -- desktop, laptop, smartphone or tablet -- was 5 percentage points below the national average, just 82% compared with 87% overall. In 127 of Appalachia's 420 counties, less than 75% of households had a connected device. 

Like many of Appalachia's ongoing and historic battles with powerful industries such as coal, mining and agriculture, comprehensive broadband access has become a fight to hold massive companies accountable to the communities they often monopolize, while fighting to establish locally owned alternatives despite a siege of industry lobbying and influence. Meanwhile, inflated stats on connection rates, speeds and affordability have concealed the true extent of the digital divide in the region, leaving many frustrated by the lack of progress.

So when Federal Communications Commission Chairman Ajit Pai chose the pandemic-peak period in January to deliver an optimistic address at the tail end of his tenure touting his efforts to narrow the digital divide, he was met with criticism for leaving the Universal Service Fund, a key broadband safety net, in limbo. Blair Levin, former head of the Obama administration's national broadband plan and a fellow at the Brookings Institute, said funding for the USF "is in a death spiral."

"Thanks a fuckin' lot, Ajit," Levin said in an interview. 

But Pai defended his record, citing an ongoing FCC spectrum auction that could save the program. 

"The record-breaking C-band auction that was conducted under my tenure over the opposition of Democrats has provided tens of billions of dollars that Congress could now use for universal service funding," Pai shot back in an email. 

The pitched debate is just the latest row over an unresolved funding problem that's been the subject of bipartisan political can-kicking, and that underpins why Appalachians remain in limbo when it comes to reliable broadband.  

Shrinking the digital divide: No data, big problem  

Though the digital divide rips across urban and rural areas alike, it's actually composed of parallel problems. The first is the divide created by a lack of physical infrastructure, largely affecting rural areas. Then there's the larger cost divide which is more visible in, though not exclusive to, urban areas -- three out of every four Americans who lack broadband access are offline not because they lack lines, but because they can't afford the service. 

Struggling with some of the highest poverty and lowest broadband access rates in the country, Appalachia is caught in both. But before it can close the gaps, it has to confront its most immediate problem: No one actually knows how big the digital divide is

That's what happened in Meigs County, Ohio. 

While the 740-acre census block inside Meigs County contains about 14 households, the FCC considers the entire area covered because just a single household gets service from incumbent internet service provider Frontier. This had the added effect of blocking the area from receiving funding from other programs. 

Although they were ultimately unsuccessful, ISPs fought for years to convince the FCC to accept their service maps as the authoritative source for the agency's broadband deployment evaluations, arguing that a more granular service map would be too burdensome to create. According to those maps, an entire census block -- which in rural areas can sometimes be several square miles -- is considered covered by a provider, even if just a single resident is connected.

Meigs County isn't alone. While FCC data holds that about 93% of Kentucky has broadband access, last September, Microsoft vice president Shelley McKinley said the portion of the state's population actually using the internet at broadband speeds (defined as 25 Mbps down and 3 Mbps up) is only about 31%. Those findings echo Microsoft's 2016 estimates that 162.8 million Americans are not using the internet at broadband speeds compared to the FCC's count of 24.7 million. 

Using the data-thin maps provided by ISPs for its 2021 report, the FCC claimed to have reduced the broadband gap to just 14.5 million Americans in areas without broadband deployment, despite the passage of a bipartisan measure mandating ISPs report more detailed connectivity numbers about speed and coverage. 

"But you'll find no evidence of that effort in this report," FCC Commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel wrote in her blistering dissent. "Instead, the FCC ignores this mandate from Congress and presses forward with data that have repeatedly been shown to be wrong."

It's going to take time to reevaluate broadband deployment and speed rates across the entire country, though. A congressional mandate from 2020 may take at least a full year to fulfill as telecom providers and federal staffers have to gather -- and make sense of -- a nation's worth of data. 

The FCC on Wednesday heard a plan to improve data collection during its open commission meeting. But for the moment, Appalachia may still be on its own in fact-checking telcos' self-reported stats.  Some states have taken up the task of measuring connectivity rates themselves through state and local portals ahead of promised federal cash infusions as they scrape their coffers to keep students online and enable telemedicine in the mountains. 

Eliminating the competition

McKee, Kentucky, has been the darling of high-profile articles and studies. The one-traffic-light town, with some of the fastest internet in the country has enjoyed a broadband boom, connecting more than 18,000 people in Owsley and Jackson Counties since 2009. To top it off, the project has created more than 1,000 jobs, reducing unemployment in the area from 16% to 5% at an initial cost of $50 million in loans, grants and capital for about a thousand miles of cable. 

What's less talked about is Hyden, about 90 minutes southeast, which has the slowest internet in the country at an average of 4.2 Mbps, or less than a tenth of the speed of the national average, according to at least one measurement in 2020

What's the difference? 

Under the latent auspices of the New Deal's Rural Electrification Act, McKee is one of the more than 750 American communities that have built their own municipal internet networks. McKee's People's Rural Telephone Company is often held up as a model for what's possible in a more connected Appalachia. The Berkman Klein Center for Internet and Society at Harvard University found community-owned broadband was cheaper than private-sector ISPs, bolstering competition by driving down costs overall in their areas (something the FCC's known since 2009).

Chattanooga has been a standard-bearer in municipal broadband over the past few years, after the municipally owned Electric Power Board of Chattanooga built its smart grid to tackle recurrent power outages and strung fiber-optic cable across the community. The builds were initially aimed at supporting the power needs of an incoming Volkswagen plant, but resulted in low-cost broadband at higher speeds in the community, and the community now draw requests from neighboring cities to join the network. 

But municipal broadband is either wholly or partially prohibited in 22 states. Seven of those states are in Appalachia, creating a patchwork of municipal service battlegrounds largely fought over by the lobbying arms of incumbent telecoms. 

Chattanooga's incumbent provider, Comcast, tried to sue the power board in 2008 in an unsuccessful bid to prevent the board from building a fiber network, and then shut down its expansion efforts in the state's legislature. The power board joined with another Appalachian city with a municipal broadband bone to pick -- Wilson, North Carolina -- and appealed to the FCC, which then overturned the state laws protecting the incumbent ISPs on a 2015 party line 3-2 vote under then-Chair Tom Wheeler

Wheeler's controversial move was based on a lesser-known provision in the appeals court ruling that killed net neutrality, which gave the FCC the power to preempt state laws prohibiting municipal broadband. 

Tennessee and the telecoms returned fire, successfully suing the FCC, leaving the commission in a tricky position: It has the authority to overturn state restrictions on local municipal broadband, but if states choose to ban municipal broadband whole-hog, the FCC's hands would be tied.

Change is in the winds, with 42 states working on broadband expansion legislation last year, including all but one (Tennessee) in Appalachia, several of which include policy-shaping clauses around municipal broadband. While several state-level broadband expansion programs have been dogged by delays and accusations of wasteful spending, there are some models, like those appearing in an April 2020 congressional analysis, that have proven valuable

The difference in Hyden's and McKee's internet speeds can be chalked up to a suite of differences between the two small towns. But among those differences is the opportunity and local control offered by a successful battle for municipal broadband. 

The last mile 

With Appalachia's tangle of broadband problems waiting at the door, the Biden administration's goal of closing the gap is a tall order. 

In his rural strategy one-sheet, Biden has proposed not only a $20 billion reinvestment in rural connectivity, but promised to direct the US National Telecommunications and Information Administration (the umbrella over the FCC) and the US Department of Agriculture to support cities and towns that want to build municipally owned broadband networks. He's also promised to further spur ISP competition by making key federally controlled telecom resources available -- like towers, poles, and rights-of-way to lay down cable -- to municipal providers. 

Another plank of Biden's digital divide platform includes revitalizing a cornerstone of Appalachian broadband access through the Lifeline program for low-income households. The program, fed by the imperiled Universal Service Fund, suffered nearly a billion dollars in cuts under the Trump administration, reduced from $2.2 billion in 2012 to $1.3 billion in 2020. The total number of people serviced by the program dropped by an estimated 40%. 

One of Pai's last moves before exiting may prove to be a further blow to Lifeline access. Without a vote from the commission, he changed the rules for Lifeline telecom providers, increasing the amount of data they're required to provide customers by 50% to 4.5 GB a month. While it might seem like a boon for low-income residents, carrier TruConnect said it and other Lifeline program participants won't be able to afford to offer the free data and will likely either cut customers off or offer them only voice service. 

The USF is also shrinking because its funding source -- the fees that appear on long-distance bills -- is drying up. On his way out of office, Pai suggested Congress use the $50 billion in proceeds from the recent C-Band auction to keep the engines running while a new plan is built. 

Pai told CNET the proceeds would "provide both a multi-year bridge for people of good faith on both sides of the aisle to work on a permanent USF funding fix and relief for consumers from the current regressive universal service tax."

Brookings Institute fellow Levin accused Pai of jeopardizing broadband assistance programs for low-income Americans via political can-kicking as he was leaving, noting that Congress was already prepared to support the USF using C-Band auction proceeds.

"When Congress and the Democrats wanted to devote the C-Band auction revenues to that very thing, you stood on the sidelines," he said in an interview.

Pai wasn't the only one who kicked the can, though. In a commentary published last week, former FCC Chair Wheeler called on the Biden administration to jump into significant Lifeline reforms right away. But contribution reforms weren't completed under Wheeler's tenure, either. For now, the can remains with the FCC's Federal-State Joint Board on Universal Service, which is responsible for USF contribution issues -- a board whose last public reports appear to be from 2010.

Critics have taken shots at the program itself. Lifeline gives you only about $10 a month, barely making a dent in the US average cost of $60 a month for basic broadband. In Kentucky, a distance-learning assistance plan launched by Gov. Andy Beshear has begun negotiating a $10 monthly service plan to connect the state's 32,000 students in low-income areas who lack internet access, using federal COVID-19 relief funds. 

The monthly charge falls right under the Lifeline budget for qualifying households, those below 135% of the federal poverty line or participating in federal assistance programs like SNAP. Appalachia is at the heart of that eligibility target, and at its center is Kentucky -- the state whose Appalachian eastern half has the worst poverty rate among its regional peers at 25.4%

It's a big reason why only half of the Laurel County teacher's students regularly attend online class. 

"Kids are still expected to do a lot online," she said. "They're expected to do research. They're expected to access Google Classroom even. And many of the kids don't have that. Most of my students live in town but for my low-income students it's an issue because they don't have the money for internet."