Columbia Engineering professor Henning Schulzrinne unpacks President Biden’s $1 trillion infrastructure bill and its promise to expand broadband access for people in rural and low-income areas.
Professor Henning Schulzrinne unpacks the infrastructure bill and how it will expand broadband access for Americans.
The $1 trillion dollar Bipartisan Infrastructure Deal will deliver $65 billion dollars to improve internet access. Currently, 30 million Americans live in areas where broadband internet is not available like in rural areas and lower-income urban areas. The plan is to build broadband networks, improve internet infrastructure, and help lower internet service cost. We asked Henning Schulzrinne, the Julian Clarence Levi Professor of computer science and an internet networks expert, how the bill will impact internet access.
Q: What is the current state of internet access in the US? Why is it important that the bill allots $65 billion to improve access for rural areas, low-income families, and tribal communities?
Internet access has two facets: availability and adoption. Currently, there is no precise data of how many homes have access to basic fixed internet service, defined as a speed of 25 megabits download. (That is much slower than most current cable or fiber offerings.) A recent effort using a variety of data sources estimates that about 93%of households could subscribe to basic broadband or faster, leaving about 14.3 million households without access except via expensive and unreliable satellite service or very slow DSL. But only about 77% of adults use the internet at home (“adoption”). Affordability is an important reason for the discrepancy between availability and adoption.
The bill is the first large-scale effort to address both availability and adoption; earlier efforts largely provided money to rural areas to build out broadband internet, about $5B a year, but did not address affordability except for the emergency broadband benefit program started in May 2021.
Q: How far behind is the US when it comes to broadband compared to the rest of the world?
Almost all large countries struggle with making high-speed broadband available to rural areas. But many other countries have lower prices and more competition for broadband service, maybe explaining why the United States ranks 16th out of 38 OECD countries. The United States ranks 13th worldwide on average broadband speed, but such comparisons can be difficult and the differences are not that large among the top 20 countries.
Q: Why is broadband not available in most rural areas?
Most rural areas have some broadband, typically using older technology based on phone lines (DSL = digital subscriber line). However, it can be quite slow and connections are often overloaded and unreliable. Only about 67% of rural households have access to higher speeds of 100 Mb/s that are typical in urban areas. The reasons are complex: cable companies provide most high-speed broadband in the United States, but have largely chosen not to build out in rural areas. Telephone companies have relied on their old phone lines to provide broadband service, with limited investment in modern fiber technology. Since houses are further apart and since disposable incomes are often lower, private investment in rural broadband has not been considered sufficiently profitable; thus, much of the rural broadband deployment has been subsidized by various federal programs. Many of these programs have been supporting broadband that is now considered obsolete.
Q: It also contains $1 billion for enabling the build-out of “middle mile” broadband infrastructure, what is this and how can it help?
The internet infrastructure can be roughly divided into the backbone network connecting major cities, middle mile networks going from those cities to smaller population centers such as county seats, and access or “last-mile” networks that connect homes to the internet. Many smaller communities do not have good fiber connections, or have only one expensive provider. Adding more regional middle mile networks allow smaller network operators to build out access networks, as such small operators cannot afford to build their own fiber network to the next large city.
Q: The bill offers an additional $2.75 billion for digital equity and inclusion efforts, which could end digital redlining. What is redlining? Do you think the bill can help with the issue?
Providers in urban areas have been accused of failing to upgrade slower broadband networks in lower-income urban areas. Competitors such as fiber providers often don’t build out new networks in such areas, either. The lower speeds and higher prices for such neighborhoods are referred to as digital redlining. It is not quite clear yet what kind of projects will be funded. There are promising ideas of providing free Wi-Fi in lower-income apartment buildings, for example.
Q: It seems that the pandemic has been helpful in revealing how inadequate broadband service is in the US. Can you talk about the key findings of your NSF Broadband Research 2020 Report and if the infrastructure bill will actually help achieve those goals?
The NSF Broadband Research Report emphasizes the need to consider measuring and addressing both availability and adoption, including providing training and devices, so the infrastructure bill offers many of the tools envisioned in the report. However, the report is largely about research questions and recommendations for facilitating such research, not policy mechanisms. Even with new, substantial funding, we have to make sure that the programs are effective and reach the right people. For example, the report recommends that all broadband agencies gather and release data as these programs are initiated so that we can learn from successes.
Q: How happy are you with the infrastructure bill? Do you think that it will help fast track the broadband situation in the US? Prior to its passing, how long do you think it would have taken the US to catch up?
The bill is really the first large-scale, all-in, and comprehensive attempt to finally address broadband availability and affordability. It is both a visionary and necessary step towards digital inclusion. My main concern is implementation and coordination. For example, the bill relies on private entities, from for-profit companies to electric cooperatives, to deploy broadband, but cannot force companies to build out everywhere or use the best long-term technology. Grants are made to states who may not have the institutional capacity to ensure that the most efficient organizations build out networks that will still be sufficient to meet local broadband needs 20 years from now. We want to avoid having to spend another few ten billion dollars of taxpayer money ten years from now, after all.
Since the effort is very state-centric, making it possible for researchers and public interest organizations to monitor and evaluate the build-out and digital inclusion efforts will be challenging. (My research group is currently attempting to analyze the existing, much smaller, subsidy efforts, run by two federal agencies, and finding it quite challenging to get a good picture of the impact.)
Q: What are the positive effects that you see will come out of this effort?
Broadband has become a must-have infrastructure for any community, just like clean water or reliable electricity. For education, universal broadband will make it much easier to provide the same learning experience to everyone. Right now, teachers often cannot assign projects or homework that relies on internet resources since not all students have easy access. Continuing education and training will become a bit easier for adults looking to gain new skills. Rural areas lack access to specialists and mental health resources; telemedicine can bridge at least some of these gaps. Some rural areas located within maybe a hundred miles of major cities may be able to attract younger residents who can now work from home and only drive to their office occasionally. Many small businesses need reliable, high-speed internet to offer their goods and services.
That said, I would not expect to fix all societal challenges – broadband access is necessary and even helpful for education, health care and public services, but it is not a replacement for providing high-quality education, health care, and public services more generally.