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Washington’s next big tech battle: closing the country’s digital divide

Efforts to improve high-speed internet access are likely to be part of an upcoming $200 billion infrastructure bill

US-POLITICS-TRUMP Photo credit should read JIM WATSON/AFP/Getty Images

President Donald Trump and his Republican allies in Congress are forging ahead with new plans to boost high-speed internet around the country, hoping that their signature crusade — deregulation — might help spur better web access in the country’s hardest-to-reach rural areas.

The bid to boost broadband is expected to become a small but critical component of infrastructure reform, a still-evolving proposal that could set aside $200 billion in federal funds to upgrade the guts of the United States — including aging roads, bridges and tunnels.

Much of the task to write such a law is sure to fall to Capitol Hill. To start, Republicans are exploring ways to make it easier for companies like AT&T, Comcast* and Verizon to lay or hang new fiber cables, or install small boxes that can beam speedy wireless service to residents without connections.

Republicans’ primary focus, however, is on rural communities, where some parents have to drive their kids “15 minutes, 20 minutes, to get to the hospital parking lot, or the McDonalds parking lot — somewhere, somewhere, [so] they have a high-speed internet connection,” explained GOP Rep. Marsha Blackburn, a Tennessee lawmaker who is helping to spearhead reform.

“This is a problem,” she stressed in an interview.

But some congressional Democrats are skeptical about what they’ve heard from their GOP peers. They feel that a big burst of federal spending is the only way to bring zippy, reliable web access to the roughly 34 million Americans nationwide who still lack it, according to one federal estimate. And they’re unsure if Republicans are ready to shell out that kind of cash.

“The Republican proposals are far less ambitious,” said Democratic Rep. Frank Pallone in a statement to Recode, “and do not actually solve any of our country’s most pressing broadband infrastructure problems.”

The digital divide

Closing the country’s broadband gap is an urgent challenge facing the U.S. government in the digital age. Tech giants in Silicon Valley are racing toward a future filled with driverless cars and virtual-reality headsets — even as communities elsewhere still can’t even browse the web on their laptops.

Virtually no one argues against improving the country’s dated digital infrastructure. But Democrats and Republicans disagree sharply over how to accomplish their shared goal. The schisms seemed most evident in 2009, when former President Barack Obama signed into law a major economic-recovery package that included more than $7 billion in broadband aid.

Democrats at the time argued that federal grants and loans might bring better internet access to communities around the country — from remote areas without any broadband at all to cities and towns where consumers too-slow service. Republicans, meanwhile, balked at the Recovery Act’s price tag. And they felt the U.S. government wrongly spent taxpayer dollars to prop up new companies to compete with existing internet providers.

To be sure, the stimulus had its successes and failures: It funded 117,000 miles of new fiber cable for internet, for example, even as millions of dollars appeared to go to waste. Nine years later, though, Republicans are readying an approach to broadband that differs greatly from their predecessors’ work.

At the White House, the Trump administration is exploring a plan that could award general grants of new federal cash to states to use as they see fit — to replace roads and bridges, for example, or tackle high-tech challenges like internet access and even underground hyperloop transit. In a matter of weeks, aides to the president are expected to release their early framework to the public and Congress, which will actually turn it into legislation.

The White House did not respond to emails seeking comment this week.

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Rep. Marsha Blackburn
Photo by Mark Wilson/Getty Images

In the House, lawmakers are already planning to kick off their work with a series of hearings beginning in January, Blackburn told Recode. She and fellow Republican Rep. Greg Walden, the leader of the tech-focused Energy and Commerce Committee, are set to lead those sessions.

On the docket to start are six Republican-authored bills, all introduced this week. One proposal would allow telecom giants to take advantage of federal lands and buildings to deploy towers, sensors and other tools necessary to deliver web service, particularly in rural areas. Another seeks to fund efforts to compile a better map of who does and doesn’t have broadband in the United States. And still a third would put aside some new federal funds for so-called peering centers, or exchanges where content companies can plop their servers in a bid to serve customers movies, music and other downloads faster.

Beyond that, lawmakers have pledged to introduce legislation that forces cities and states to consider, then approve, broadband construction projects more expediently. The goal is to “simplify permits and requirements, and clean up duplicative agency processes,” they said this week without elaborating.

And Republicans have taken a particular interest in efforts by companies like Google, which has spent years refining its internet-beaming balloons. The tech giant secured special permission to deploy its so-called Loon in Puerto Rico, during the cleanup after Hurricane Maria, and Republican lawmakers said they would explore new ways of bringing broadband to other, similar disaster-affected areas.

Generally, though, GOP leaders have stressed they want to focus any federal dollars on towns that have no broadband internet at all, as opposed to areas that do have some level of service — even if it’s not very fast or reliable.

“The primary focus is going to be unserved,” the lawmaker said. “This is a great example of where the stimulus messed up.”

A $40 billion problem?

But experts in the field — and Democrats, in particular — have their doubts.

Take House Republicans’ commitment to focus on rural regions that lack any broadband access. “There are still many urban areas that lack broadband,” said Joshua Stager, a telecom expert at New America’s Open Technology Institute.

By broadband, Stager means durable, reliable internet connections, speeds that allow residents to stream movies and music while browsing the web without interruption. In scores of rural and urban areas, Americans don’t have that — or they only have one choice for internet service.

To that end, Stager wagered: “I think there are many House Republicans who actually would fully support overbuild in areas that are underserved.”

Germany Expands Rural Broadband Connectivitty Photo by Sean Gallup/Getty Images

About those public lands, by the way: While Democrats and Republicans agree that federal buildings might make great spots to deploy the web’s unsexy-but-critical infrastructure, the U.S. government doesn’t have a specific estimate as to how many rural Americans would benefit from such a plan. At least, the White House last week acknowledged it had no final count.

Permits, meanwhile, sounds like the stuff of lengthy, boring battles in local legislatures and utility commissions. But some fear that GOP efforts to streamline local regulations to speed up broadband build-out is really an attempt to force cities and states to “get rid of all their consumer protections and environmental impact protections,” said Phillip Berenbroick, a senior policy counsel at Public Knowledge, another D.C.-based consumer group.

And then there’s the price tag. Broadband is only slated to be a slice of Republicans’ expected $200 billion infrastructure package, after all. Democrats insist that bringing the rest of the country online is going to take a serious amount of new federal investment.

“I think the FCC estimated in 2016 that it’s fundamentally a $40 billion problem to get to 98,” said Blair Levin, the architect of former President Barack Obama’s broadband strategy, referring to the percent of the population that would have broadband access as a result of federal spending. “And $80 billion to get to 100.”

For now, Blackburn and her GOP allies have declined to say exactly how much they’re willing to shell out to wire the country -- or even set a target for when, and how many, households they hope to help.

Instead, she said in an interview, lawmakers had to be a “wise steward of the hard working taxpayer’s money and to do more with the resources that we are given, and make certain that we expand high-speed internet.”

In the meantime, the Senate has started its own trek toward infrastructure reform, discussing ways to free up more of the invisible wireless airwaves that power smartphones, tablets and other devices. And the Federal Communications Commission said on Tuesday that it hoped to set aside $500 million in funds to help smaller carriers in rural areas.

Whether Democrats and Republicans can actually bridge the digital divide, however, may very well hinge on something far more analogue — whether they can narrow the political gap still between them.

“From a Wall Street perspective,” Levin continued, “would you be betting on a big infrastructure package actually happening and having an impact right now? I don’t think so.”

* Comcast, through its NBCU arm, is an investor in Vox Media, which owns this website.

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