President Joe Biden on Wednesday returned to Pittsburgh, where he kicked off his run for the presidency in 2019, to take the wraps off his next big legislative priority -- a massive plan to modernize US infrastructure.
The infrastructure package, which will cost $2.25 trillion, includes money for a wide range of projects, from improving and maintaining roads, bridges and waterways to spending $100 billion over the next eight years to deploy broadband throughout rural America, according to the White House on Wednesday. Biden's plan also promises to reduce the cost of broadband for low-income individuals in an effort to make broadband more affordable.
During his speech at a union hall, Biden talked about the the fact that more than 30 million Americans, including 35 percent of rural Americans, live in areas without any access to broadband. And in urban and suburban markets where broadband is available, it's often too expensive. This reality hits minority families harder than white families, creating digital inequities. The coronavirus pandemic, which led to shutdowns across the country, made the issues even more apparent, especially for students who struggled to connect to the internet for distance learning.
"We'll make sure every single, every single, American has access to high-quality, affordable, high-speed internet," Biden said during his speech. "When I say affordable I mean it. Americans pay too much for internet service. We're going to drive down the price for families who have service now and make it easier for families who don't have affordable service to be able to get it now."
The Build Back Better agenda is a comprehensive effort that the president promises will boost the economy, address climate change by reducing carbon emissions and reduce economic inequality. The spending plan goes well beyond just addressing updates and maintenance to the nation's highway and transit systems, with improvements to water systems and electrical grids, as well as investment in broadband, 5G wireless and supply chains.
Another major emphasis of the plan is an effort to reduce greenhouse gas emissions through use of electric cars, as well as funding for research and development to target areas in which the US is falling behind China, such as semiconductors and batteries.
Biden's proposal has two main parts. The first, called the American Jobs Plan, which was discussed in his speech Wednesday, focuses on traditional infrastructure, like roads and bridges, as well as broadband expansion. The second initiative, which will be announced in April, will focus on funding policy areas that Biden believes will help rebuild the post-COVID-19 economy, such as universal pre-kindergarten education, child tax credits and paid leave. Billions will also be put toward programs to support the elderly and disabled, as well as initiatives for affordable housing infrastructure and manufacturing.
Biden said that taken together the two parts of his plan will help lift up the middle class.
"We will all do better, when we all do well," Biden said. "It's time to build our economy from the bottom up and from the middle out, not the top down."
While things like closing the digital divide and more traditional infrastructure issues like improving and maintaining roads, bridges and waterways are largely bipartisan issues, the hefty price tag and the expansive nature of Biden's plan are likely to face stiff resistance from Republicans and even some moderate Democrats in Congress. Biden plans to pay for the spending with tax increases for wealthy Americans and large businesses. He promised that Americans making less than $400,000 a year will not see an increase in taxes.
Biden said he's still open to working with Republicans.
"This is my idea for how to pay for this plan," Biden said. "I'm open to other ideas so long as they do not impose any tax increase on people making less than $400,000."
Congressional Republicans, who refused to support the $1.9 trillion COVID stimulus package, saying it was too expensive, are unlikely to go for any tax increases. Lawmakers, such as Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, argue that tax increases will damage US competitiveness just as the economy struggles to rebound from the pandemic.
"I don't think there's going to be any enthusiasm on our side for a tax increase," McConnell said earlier this month when asked about increasing taxes to support infrastructure spending.
Rural broadband to get a boost
The White House said the plan "will bring affordable, reliable, high-speed broadband to every American, including the more than 35 percent of rural Americans who lack access to broadband at minimally acceptable speeds."
The plan is meant to ensure that Americans living in rural areas and tribal lands will have access to broadband. And it will also make broadband more affordable to the millions of people who live in urban and suburban markets where service is unaffordable, the White House said.
Allegheny County Executive Rich Fitzgerald, who represents the county in Pennsylvania where Biden will present his plan, said the investment in broadband infrastructure is very much needed. While urban areas like Pittsburgh and its surrounding suburbs may be well connected to broadband, Fitzgerald noted that access to high-speed internet in many rural areas is still lacking.
"You go to Armstrong County, Indiana County, Westmoreland County, and there are a lot of gaps in connectivity," he said in an interview. "The investment that the president is looking to make in broadband will be critical for us here in southwestern Pennsylvania to grow economically."
It's a sentiment that resonates throughout the country.
"There are places in South Carolina you might as well be on the moon when it comes to getting high-speed internet service," Republican Sen. Lindsay Graham said earlier this week after he and fellow South Carolina Republican Sen. Tim Scott introduced the the State Fix Act, a bill designed to get funding to broadband providers to build broadband networks in underserved areas. "All South Carolinians should be able to utilize the educational, telehealth and business benefits of accessible and affordable broadband."
The digital divide is a problem that's dogged policy makers for decades. In spite of billions of dollars spent by the federal government each year to get more Americans connected, there are still at least 19 million Americans who don't have access to broadband, according to the Federal Communications Commission. That number is likely an underestimate, the FCC admits, given that the maps the government uses to determine who has service and who doesn't are grossly inaccurate.
Though policy makers for years have talked about the problem, the issue has taken on a new urgency over the past year as the pandemic and resulting lockdown provided a stark reminder that having adequate broadband is no longer a luxury. As schools and offices across the US have shut down, the internet has become as necessary to day-to-day life as electricity and running water.
During his campaign, Biden said he would expand broadband to every American. Biden's campaign promised $20 billion for rural broadband infrastructure for both wired and wireless networks to help bring internet access to areas where it simply doesn't exist now. It also promised to include help for local municipalities seeking to build their own broadband networks.
Congress has already been allocating funds to address the digital divide since the pandemic began a year ago. A half dozen states used federal funding from the CARES Act passed last spring to help fund broadband infrastructure projects. Mississippi was one such state, allocating $65 million of its CARES Act funding to grants for electric co-ops, which used the money to accelerate the buildout of gigabit-speed broadband service on fiber-optic infrastructure.
Funds allocated by Congress in the December COVID relief bill are now being used to provide a $50 a month subsidy to low-income individuals to pay for broadband service. More money for broadband is coming from the latest COVID relief legislation signed into law earlier this month.
Watch this: Why millions of Americans still lack broadband at a time when it's no longer optional
But there is a sense that the Biden administration and Democrats such as House majority whip James E. Clyburn, of South Carolina, and Sen. Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota want to go bigger. Earlier this month, Clyburn and Klobuchar introduced the Accessible, Affordable Internet for All Act in the House and Senate that would allocate $94 billion to make affordable broadband internet access available nationwide. The legislation is an effort to close the digital divide and bring digital equity to millions of Americans.
Democrats say now's the time to make big changes, much as the federal government did nearly a century ago when it brought electricity to rural America.
"Access to broadband today will have the same dramatic impact on rural communities as the rural electrification efforts in the last century," Clyburn said.
As part of Biden's plan to reach 100 percent of Americans with broadband, he also wants to prioritize spending on building "future-proof" broadband infrastructure in unserved and underserved areas. The plan will also prioritize spending for networks owned operated by or affiliated with local governments, nonprofits, and cooperatives, which the White House said would have "less pressure to turn profits and with a commitment to serving entire communities." Funds will also be set aside for infrastructure in tribal lands.
The plan also calls for promoting transparency in price and competition among broadband providers, including lifting barriers that prevent municipally owned or electric co-ops from competing on an even playing field with private providers. It would also require internet providers to clearly disclose the prices they charge.
The plan also calls for reducing the cost of broadband to promote more widespread adoption.
"President Biden believes that building out broadband infrastructure isn't enough," the White House said. "We also must ensure that every American who wants to can afford high-quality and reliable broadband internet."
Subsidies will be proposed in the short term to help low-income individuals cover the cost of service, but Biden's ambitions go beyond that. The plan also calls for Congress to step in to find a solution to make internet more affordable for more Americans.
"Americans pay too much for the internet – much more than people in many other countries," the White House said. "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."
Reactions to the plan
Public interest groups, which have also pledged support for other Democrats' plans to spend big on broadband, say they are pleased with Biden's plan.
"President Biden's $100 billion infrastructure plan acknowledges an important fact about broadband today -- it is an essential service, like water and electricity, and our public policy should reflect that fact," said Greg Guice, government affairs director at Public Knowledge. "By providing state, local, and tribal governments funding and the flexibility necessary to ensure citizens have access to robust, future-proof networks, this plan will help us close the digital divide."
Meanwhile, other groups say the plan misses the mark not just in terms of the amount of spending, but for what is perceived as an overemphasis on government-owned broadband providers and restrictions that could limit the ability of traditional broadband companies from accessing funds for building and expanding new broadband infrastructure.
"Biden's broadband infrastructure plan goes overboard and threatens to undermine the system of private competition that successfully serves most of the United States," said Doug Brake, director of broadband and spectrum policy for the Information Technology and Innovation Foundation, a Washington, DC-based think tank for science and technology policy. "No doubt, the United States sorely needs subsidies for rural broadband, but this isn't an area to turn all the dials up to 11."
The broadband industry is also concerned about the plan's focus on municipally or city-owned networks getting a preference for funding over private companies offering broadband service.
"The White House has elected to go big on broadband infrastructure," said Michael Powell, president and CEO of the NCTA, the cable industry's main lobbying group. "But it risks taking a serious wrong turn in discarding decades of successful policy by suggesting that the government is better suited than private-sector technologists to build and operate the internet."
Powell, who served as chairman of the Federal Communications Commission under President George W. Bush, also took issue with Biden's assertion that the broadband prices are too high and his intimation that the government needs to regulate rates.
"Government does have a critical role to play in getting networks to areas that lack service and helping low-income families afford it," Powell said. "However, 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."