clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

America has a terrible digital divide. Elizabeth Warren has a plan for that too.

Warren introduced a plan that would allocate $85 billion in federal funds toward developing broadband networks. 

Democratic Presidential Candidates Elizabeth Warren giving a speech with her hands raised as she talks.
Sen. Elizabeth Warren is known for releasing detailed policy plans as part of her presidential campaign. Her latest is on fixing the digital divide between rural and urban Americans.
Photo by Ethan Miller/Getty Images
Shirin Ghaffary is a senior Vox correspondent covering the social media industry. Previously, Ghaffary worked at BuzzFeed News, the San Francisco Chronicle, and TechCrunch.

If you live in rural America today, you’re much less likely to have high-speed internet than if you live in an urban part of the country.

Presidential hopeful Elizabeth Warren — who seems to have a plan for everything — released a new plan today to fix that problem.

Warren’s broadband plan would grant $85 billion in federal money to subsidize building out broadband networks in rural communities. Warren’s proposal is a big deal. Currently, the FCC only provides about $4.6 billion a year for rural broadband development, and the Rural Utilities Service gives out around $800 million a year in loans and grants.

Warren’s plan addresses the deep digital divide in the US, where around 39 percent of Americans in rural areas don’t have access to high-speed internet, compared to 1.5 percent of Americans in urban areas, according to the FCC. That’s largely because building out broadband networks across vast swaths of the rural US is expensive. The major for-profit Internet Service Providers (ISPs), like AT&T and Comcast, don’t have a financial incentive to invest infrastructure in sparsely populated areas. And local efforts to build not-for-profit or small-scale municipal networks have been stifled by competition from major telecoms corporations.

Under Warren’s proposal, the president would create an Office of Broadband Access under the Department of Economic Development that would oversee administering the $85 billion in grants.

Warren’s plan would also do the following:

  • Use federal law to protect local governments’ rights to build their own municipal broadband networks rather than rely on private ISPs.
  • Award funding only to “electricity and telephone cooperatives, nonprofit organizations, tribes, cities, counties, and other state subdivisions” — not the major for-profit ISPs — that are building fiber infrastructure for broadband in rural communities.
  • Require that groups that receive this federal funding subsidize their services for low-income households.
  • Set aside $5 billion specifically for tribal nations to expand broadband access on Native American lands. Native Americans are considered some of the least internet-connected residents of the United States — almost half of Native Americans living on reservations or other tribal lands do not have broadband access, according the US Census Bureau.
  • Try to improve the accuracy of broadband maps. As Recode’s Rani Molla has reported, ISPs have majorly underestimated the extent of the rural-urban broadband divide. Warren says she would appoint FCC commissioners who would force ISPs to provide better reporting on this.
  • Appoint FCC commissioners who support net neutrality.

Warren joins other 2020 candidates who have mentioned expanding broadband access, but her plan is, for now, the most detailed.

Joe Biden has said he would invest $20 billion in rural broadband infrastructure, and triple the amount of funding to expand broadband access in rural areas. Amy Klobuchar has also made increasing internet access a focus of her campaign, promising to connect every American household with broadband internet by 2022. Bernie Sanders has also stated that he would ensure high-speed broadband access for every American. But neither Biden, Klobuchar, nor Sanders has provided as many specifics as Warren on how they would accomplish this.

Last May, President Trump released two executive orders making it easier for private companies to build internet networks in rural areas by reducing government paperwork and granting companies access to public infrastructure. However, those initiatives didn’t address the larger financial barrier to getting broadband development up and running.

There’s also a divide in the availability of mobile cell networks for rural Americans when compared to urban ones. Warren’s plan doesn’t directly address that, but it’s easy to see how some of these ideas could carry over to mobile internet providers as well.