When reviewing the Biden administration’s broadband proposals, it’s worth refreshing a classic Reagan aphorism: The 13 most terrifying words in the English language are, “I’m from the Government, and I’m here to bring you affordable, reliable broadband.”
To state the obvious, the $100 billion Biden broadband plan means more regulation, higher taxes and worse service. It will harm vulnerable Americans more than help them, and derail the private sector’s on-going efforts to expand Internet access. By prioritizing municipal broadband — Internet access built and run by the government — the Biden administration is ignoring what we already know about such efforts: They don’t work.
Across the country, taxpayers have witnessed well-meaning, city-built Internet networks crash and burn. In Sen. Bernie Sanders’ backyard of Burlington, Vermont, “The city tried to build its own broadband network and was unable to service the debt for the project.” In Provo, Utah, “When the city ran the network, subscriptions were not enough to cover the debt, and the city had to infuse up to $2 million a year from the city’s Energy Department surplus funds.”
In Philadelphia, Chicago, Portland, Orlando and others, the experiment with government-sponsored broadband is a panoply of recklessness and waste, with losses totaling in the billions. In the face of ample evidence, academic research and case studies, the Biden administration’s response is: So what? They propose to spend $100 billion on a failed idea, and they want to cast aside nearly $2 trillion of private sector investment in broadband infrastructure.
We already have a system for expanding Internet access in this country. It’s called the private sector, and over the last decade, companies have poured hundreds of billions into expanding and upgrading their networks. Some broadband networks are large and well-known, run by household names like Verizon and AT&T; but there are thousands of small providers with as few as 10 subscribers that have done yeoman’s work to bring connectivity to rural America. Mr. Biden’s plan would kick those small businesses to the curb by creating government-run networks while asking taxpayers to foot the bill.
The administration’s plan also forces unnecessary requirements onto both the private and public sectors. Consider, for instance, their idea that the government can “future proof” networks by redefining broadband to include only those networks that offer 100 Mbps of download speed and 100 Mbps of upload speed. Known as “symmetrical speeds,” this pairing sounds good on a cable news show, but it has zero connection to the reality of broadband use.
The 100/100 parity between upload and download speeds is unnecessary. The numbers sound good in a speech, but by one estimate, 93% of U.S. Internet traffic in 2020 traveled downstream. That means the 100 Mbps upload speed is a requirement we don’t need for a problem we don’t have.
The 100/100 stipulation itself is a farce. If applied today, most broadband customers today would be considered “unserved”; the Internet you are using to read this piece would likely not hit those marks. So why insist on artificial benchmarks? Because if the Biden administration can classify whole cities or states as “unserved,” then it can force the government into the Internet business in any locale it would like under the guise of “serving the unserved.”
At the heart of the plan is a simple and simple-minded goal: Turn Internet access into a government utility as opposed to a privately-run service. This would be a profound step backward, not least because it would push the private sector out of the Internet access business. Companies forced to compete with a spendthrift government would realize that they’re better off doing anything else; even ambitious start-up efforts in satellite Internet — like those being led by SpaceX and Amazon — could wither away in the face of a massive government Internet takeover.
The end result is worse service at a higher price for fewer people. These consequences, of course, would fall on the hardest-hit Americans most of all — those who lack Internet access today. As private sector companies step out, they’d also stop innovating, investing and offering services to those on the wrong side of the digital divide, especially low-income and rural areas.
The net effect of the Biden administration’s plan to close the digital divide would be to widen it.
While the Biden administration’s focus on expanding Internet access is praiseworthy, there are far better ways to fix the digital divide. Their approach is a catastrophe of regulation, spending and excess that ignores fundamental realities of how our Internet works. Those who are knowledgeable on this subject need to speak up and get the government out of the business of Internet service before the Internet is made worse off for the rest of us.
• Beverly McKittrick is director of the Regulatory Action Center at FreedomWorks.