Hill Democrats Unveil Broadband 'Better Deal'

Say job one is getting high speeds to all

Hill Democrats have offered up what they liken to a New Deal (they call it a Roosevelt-like "Better Deal") for those without "adequate" internet access.

On Thursday (Sept. 28) they outlined a plan to get high-speed broadband to the 34-plus million Americans they say need but lack it.

"Every American home, school and small business should be connected to high-speed internet," the plan asserts. "Unfortunately, there are still too many communities in America that are simply being left behind... While the private sector has delivered high-speed internet to many, millions of Americans in less profitable rural and urban areas have been left out."

Democrats have called for billions in broadband subsidies before, in response to President Donald Trump's planned infrastructure upgrades. But the new branding more closely ties it to President Franlkin Roosevelt's effort in the 1930s to electrify rural areas where there was little or no business case for it.

The Better Deal plan would invest at least $40 billion in direct broadband funding, both to build out new plant and upgrade existing networks.

Funds would go to a Universal Internet Grant Program to close the "last mile" gap, with municipal broadband providers and co-ops eligible to compete for the money, as well as commercial entities. That money would be focused on areas that don't have or are not expected to have, in a "reasonable" time frame, "reliable, affordable, high-speed internet."

 Both unserved and underserved areas would be targeted.

"Reliable," "affordable" and "reasonable" are not defined in the outline, but are the operative words if the Democrats expect to get any sign-ons from Republicans or ISPs.

ISPs are not looking to get overbuilt by government money in areas where they already provide service. But the money could also be used to help existing providers upgrade their networks to the speeds the government decides qualify, so that could be a selling point with commercial operators.

The funds would be allocated via a reverse auction -- lowest bid that meets the requirements for service and value wins -- among potential providers. But another likely turn-off for ISPs is that bids from providers that "have failed to make good on previous commitments" would get higher scrutiny or be rejected out of hand. Again, it is how that "failure" is defined that is important.

"Today’s announcement by House and Senate Democrats is a welcome addition to the ongoing dialogue about how to best promote access to rural broadband,” said NTCA CEO Shirley Bloomfield in a statement. “We commend these members of Congress for keeping rural America top of mind, and we are eager for further conversations about how to help ensure that properly tailored and effective programs can promote and sustain affordable access to future-proof broadband networks by all Americans.”

NTCA represents rural broadband providers.