Joe Biden is working on passing a $6 trillion budget which includes $94 billion in funds to increase access to fast internet and thereby close the ‘digital divide’.
The digital divide refers to a gap between those who have reliable, accessible, and fast internet and those who don’t. This lack of access to high speed internet puts people at an economic and social disadvantage.
Since the internet became a part of daily life in the early 1990s, and awareness began to grow that not everyone was able to access this ‘information superhighway’, every President has made promises to make high speed, reliable internet available to everyone, including the poor and those in underserved areas.
The big question has always been ‘Who is going to pay for it?”.
Let’s look at the history of Presidents promising to provide universal fast internet access from Bill Clinton to Biden.
Al Gore was a huge promoter of the government’s role in providing universal access from the time he became Vice President in 1992.
Gore, a Democrat, believed in the power of the internet to educate and improve the lives of everyone. He also wanted to harness the internet to educate people on climate change.
Bill Clinton worked closely with Gore in his goals .
Go back in time and watch this video of Clinton reading a teleprompter bragging about the new White House website.
Clinton signed the Telecommunication Act of 1996 which brought progress in many areas. However, detractors blame the act for the current state of monopolies controlling radio, cable and internet communications. The Act accomplished the opposite of it’s stated goal to open up more competition in the market.
The Telecommunications Act also had a huge consequences for the music industry. Read more about that here. http://futureofmusic.org/article/research/radio-deregulation-has-it-served-musicians-and-citizens
President George W. Bush , a Republican, also made a lofty broadband promise while campaigning for a second term in 2004. He did not provide an actual plan for making this goal a reality.
I could not find any record of Bush budgeting funding for increasing broadband during his eight years in office. His idea was that the market would take care of it if given the right incentives.
Justifications for federal funding of broadband access have evolved.
One justification, the claim that complete internet coverage is necessary for national security , has been around since the 9/11 attack.
Obama’s FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski said that it was up to the feds to fund broadband for public safety because the private sector was not going to do it.
In 2021, the main justification for funding more access has shifted to ‘people need fast internet for work, school, health care and shopping.” There is not as much talk about national security.
President Obama considered the digital divide to be an important issue and authorized the FCC to create a plan to increase broadband coverage as part of his recession recovery act.
Obama’s 2009 American Recovery and Reinvestment Act plan included $7.2 billion for broadband grant and loan programs.
According to this Politico article, much of the Obama era high-speed internet funding simply went unused or remains unaccounted for. ““We are left with a program that spent $3 billion,” Mark Goldstein, an investigator at the Government Accountability Office, told POLITICO, “and we really don’t know what became of it.”
One justification for internet access that you don’t hear much about anymore is Obama’s goal to create a ‘smart grid’ as a means to accomplish the goal of reducing green house gases.
Evidently Obama’s plan for broadband failed to achieve it’s goals since we are now hearing the same promises from Biden.
Progress on the broadband goal seemed to stall out during President Donald Trump’s time in office even though he also made promises.
Trump proposed spending $25 billion on broadband as part of a $1 trillion infrastructure package which critics said was not enough.
Biden’s ‘Infrastructure’ plan, Build Back Better, or American Jobs Plan, includes billions of dollars to revamp the power grid and move closer to green energy, in addition to internet access.
Presidents are not the only ones fighting for more broadband.
Microsoft , which sees itself as a force for empowering people, aggressively joined the push for more funding in 2017.
As stated in their white paper, Microsoft believes that it is the responsibility of the government to increase internet access and help pay for it.
Microsoft President Brad Smith explained his reasons for pushing for more broadband coverage in 2017, basically that people need internet access for life.
Covid school closures helped bring the digital divide back into the news when many children were unable to access remote classes.
Teachers and education advocates have long been saying that children not having internet access at home puts them at a disadvantage to their peers.
Schools receive a special rate for internet access in the classroom called e-rate thanks to Bill Clinton’s Telecommunications Act of 1996.
But when millions of students needed to use the internet at home to view classes via ZOOM, the digital divide of rich and poor students became more real.
According to Senator Patty Murray, D, WA, she already knew about the digital divide ,but the pandemic made it impossible to ignore. She is fighting for more digital access and considers it a basic need like ” food, housing, education, and medical care”.
Microsoft recently contributed to new mapping of areas that need broadband. Their map shows more homes without fast internet than the FCC’s map.
Experts are still arguing over whether to use wireless and wired broadband.
White space, unused frequencies between television channels, have been hyped by Microsoft and others as the cheapest way to provide internet access, but not everyone likes that idea.
In 2020, the FCC approved the plan to use TV White Space for internet access, but for some reason Microsoft did not accomplish much.
In his blog, McFadden criticized Microsoft’s “Airband Initiative,” as a heavily hyped solution to the rural broadband gap that has not lived up to its promises.
Four years later, Microsoft continues to work towards the goal of convincing the government to provide more money for 100% broadband speed internet coverage.
As President Biden tries to sell his budget, let us remember the past promises of so many others.
The promises and budgets of the past presidents tend to get forgotten.
At least $100 billion has been spent in just the last 10 years on broadband, and that does not include the billions spent with Clinton and Bush.
Who or what is standing in the way of progress?
Where did the previously budgeted billions go? Is there enough accountability?
Is it the taxpayers’ job to fund universal access, especially considering the extreme profits being made by tech companies and internet access providers now?
Is the digital divide as big of an issue as some claim?
Before we go, let us consider the following graph and see who benefits most financially from internet usage.