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President Joe Biden’s infrastructure plan is igniting a broadband lobbying fight, with multiple internet providers claiming Democrats are miscalculating and risk abandoning rural America — not to mention threatening the companies' bottom lines.
The White House has said it wants to “future proof” the proposed $100 billion in subsidies to hook up the country with fast broadband internet. Many take that phrase to mean laying traditional fiber-optic cable — a tested technology that promises increasingly fast speeds for decades to come.
That’s an unsettling prospect to providers specializing in alternative ways to get online, like using wireless radio waves and 5G, cable TV lines and satellite-beamed internet. That includes companies ranging from Comcast to AT&T to billionaire Elon Musk’s SpaceX.
Worried that Democrats will cut them out of these subsidy plans, they’re going on the offensive.
“If 5G is cut out, it won’t do anything to help rural residents who want better mobile service,” said Jonathan Adelstein, president of the Wireless Infrastructure Association, which counts AT&T and Verizon among its members. "They’d have to run back home to go online, just like the dark ages before cellphones when you could only take a call from the house.”
Adelstein — a Democrat who headed the Agriculture Department’s rural utilities program in the Obama administration and served as an FCC commissioner — isn’t alone in his consternation. Various ISPs and the senior Republican FCC commissioner, Brendan Carr, are also questioning these choices. 5G, some note, didn't score a single mention in the Biden administration's 25-page infrastructure outline.
Even a Microsoft executive, testifying Tuesday in the House, said broadband subsidies should be flexible and allow for a mix of deployment options, tailored toward different areas' needs given the high costs associated with laying fiber.
Cable and wireless providers already serve vast regions of the country, while satellite companies have tried to stake out a role in serving hard-to-reach regions. Under Democrats’ plans, what they offer probably wouldn’t meet the new ultra-fast definition of broadband — a speed well beyond what anyone needs today for even video-calling and streaming movies. That means subsidies could go to companies putting fiber broadband into areas that already have other types of internet access. That’s time and money that would be better spent, the companies argue, getting more remote areas online.
As Congress negotiates in coming weeks, the fight over how to target the money is likely to take center stage. The corporate lobbying campaigns could pressure some of the moderate, rural Democrats that party leaders may need, especially if they angle to move infrastructure legislation along a party-line vote under budget reconciliation.
Republicans, meanwhile, could join with the telecom industry to pound Democrats, accusing them of bias against the free market. GOP lawmakers have already slammed Biden for backing progressive priorities like favoring government-run broadband networks and demanding more transparent pricing. During a Tuesday hearing, Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska) told Biden administration officials that "it's just not possible" to expect fiber everywhere and said policymakers need to consider other options like cell towers and satellites to fill the gaps.
One Senate GOP staffer said Republicans are concerned about the White House’s talk of “future proof” broadband, explaining that they also interpreted it as a preference for fiber. The staffer, who requested anonymity to speak frankly about emerging concerns, questioned whether fiber build-out is the money’s best use.
Biden has tended to follow Hill Democrats’ lead in shaping broadband priorities, and that doesn’t bode well for the fiber skeptics. House Majority Whip Jim Clyburn (D-S.C.) recently introduced fiber-friendly legislation that would hike the minimum broadband speeds required to receive many government subsidies above what alternative providers currently offer. Critics say such speed hikes go well beyond what is necessary over the next several years.
A Biden administration official said they’re thinking beyond a few years. “We should focus on building out infrastructure that will still be useful decades from now. That’s what 'future proof' means,” the official said, speaking anonymously to talk freely. Asked whether that means fiber-optic cable specifically, the person said that “fiber certainly qualifies as future proof.” The official declined to say whether any other technologies fit the bill.
Under questioning from senators Tuesday, Commerce Secretary Gina Raimondo said the White House will "consider alternatives to fiber in the cases where that is the best, most effective way to deliver broadband" and that solving the digital divide "will require an openness to embracing different technologies," statements that went beyond what the White House previously expressed. Although these comments may come as reassurance to concerned industry officials, exact details of what that openness looks like are still unclear and subject to negotiations in the coming weeks.
Proponents of fiber say it complements and bolsters wireless offerings, noting that 5G requires fiber installations to support all the data riding along its airwaves. And once fiber is laid down, network upgrades cost less than those for other broadband technologies.
Rural providers across the country are already making fiber infrastructure investments. Shirley Bloomfield, who represents more than 850 rural telecom providers through the trade group NTCA, describes great enthusiasm for fiber among her group. While the initial costs to dig up land and lay fiber cable are high, she said, providers report lower operating expenses and fewer maintenance visits over time.
Her industry rivals may be missing what rural America really needs, she said in an interview, fearing what it would mean to pit all these various technologies against one another.
"I don’t think we have to make this The Hunger Games," Bloomfield cautioned. "I think starting Hunger Games about what technology to use, we lose sight of the prize and we lose sight of the consumers.”
Wireless representative Adelstein and other industry executives, however, argue that “technological neutrality” will serve more consumers more quickly.
Rural Americans would benefit from more affordably blanketing whole regions with wireless connectivity they can tap via their smartphones, Adelstein said, arguing that farmers, for example, would have difficulty implementing precision agriculture technology if subsidies are geared toward laying fiber. "A fiber-first policy could inadvertently grow a rural mobility digital divide,” he said.
CTIA, another wireless trade group, called wireless “essential to achieving the goal of universal broadband availability and affordability.” In a statement, CTIA said: “We are confident that the Administration and Congress are committed to a technologically inclusive approach.”
Fiber’s backers say the cable and wireless providers are missing the need for long-term investment. Tom Wheeler, a former Obama-era FCC chair, warned House lawmakers in a hearing last month that China has barreled ahead with fiber build-out and the U.S. risks falling behind.
Paul de Sa, a former FCC staffer who recently sat on Biden’s FCC transition review team, said the cost-benefit analysis simply favors fiber. De Sa helmed a 2017 paper that found it would cost about $80 billion to lay fiber for the 14 percent of the country lacking that wiring. That report, although it relied on incomplete data, informed Democratic planning on Capitol Hill and underpins today’s Democratic broadband proposals.
“Why would one not pick the fiber every time?” de Sa asked. “Why do you have to be ‘technology neutral’ when there are clear differences between the performance and the incremental upgrade costs of the technologies?”