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Joe Biden is betting big on small networks to close the digital divide

Joe Biden is betting big on small networks to close the digital divide


Democrats have a plan to overrule state network bans

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Image: Alex Castro / The Verge

Like hundreds of school districts across the country, Edgecombe County Public Schools in North Carolina had to move their coursework online to keep their students safe during the coronavirus pandemic. Worksheets became websites and school assemblies became Zoom conferences with outside speakers.

But for students without a stable internet connection, teachers had to hand-deliver packets of homework that would normally have been put online. In assemblies, students are asked to turn off their cameras so their streams don’t cut out.

“We tell the kids, it’s not your fault”

“We just let the speakers know, our students are probably not going to be on camera. And it’s because we don’t have good internet speeds out here,” Arlane Gordon-Bray, community and industry engagement partner for Edgecombe County Public Schools iZone program, tells The Verge. “And we tell the kids, it’s not your fault that you’re not able to fully participate in what we consider the norm of internet etiquette.”

Throughout our discussion Friday, Gordon-Bray’s cell signal cut out three times, disconnecting our call. She had to call back on a landline phone at the school so we could finish the interview.

In theory, help is on the way. The Biden administration’s ambitious infrastructure proposal, the American Jobs Plan, includes $100 billion in broadband funding, with the goal of connecting every American to high-speed broadband by the end of the decade. But with Senate Republicans set to dramatically cut total investment in their counter-proposal, the future of the package is unclear. Making Biden’s plan work will mean wading into a mess of local rules around municipal broadband and trying to undo decades of rules about how places like Edgecombe County can get online.

Biden’s plan focuses on local and nonprofit telecoms, prioritizing publicly owned networks over giants like Verizon and Comcast that dominate better-served markets. In the proposal distributed last month, the White House described the American Jobs Plan as “prioritiz[ing] support for broadband networks, owned, operated by, or affiliated with local governments, non-profits, and co-operatives” so that providers face “less pressure to turn profits.” As of January 2020, over 500 US communities are served by a publicly owned network, according to the Institute for Local Self-Reliance. But even as these networks grow and expand across the country, 18 states restrict them in some form, whether that be banning them outright or outlawing their expansion into adjacent counties. 

Greenlight Community Broadband, located in Wilson, North Carolina, is one of those municipally owned networks. Greenlight is the state’s first community-owned fiber network and has been in operation since 2008. But in 2011, the North Carolina legislature passed a law banning municipal telecoms. Wilson’s Greenlight was exempt from it, seeing as the company was already connecting people in the community. Still, it’s made it more difficult for the network to expand into adjacent communities, like those in Edgecombe County, that could benefit from the service. 

Removing these barriers is a key part of Biden’s plan. The proposal says that it would “promote price transparency and competition” among internet service providers by “lifting barriers that prevent” these networks from “competing on an even playing field with private providers” like AT&T, Comcast, and Verizon. This could mean preempting the laws in states like North Carolina that restrict the creation and expansion of publicly owned broadband networks. 

“To say that communities can’t decide to take a vote, spend their own money, establish, or extend their own utilities based on what their residents want and what they need locally is ridiculous,” says Angelina Panettieri, legislative director of information technology and communications at the National League of Cities. “To tell people who are willing and able to invest the money in good fiber infrastructure for their residents that they can’t do it, but also that the incumbent ISPs will not provide it for them either? It’s just ridiculous.”

“It’s just ridiculous”

The infrastructure package’s final form is still up in the air. With Republicans introducing their own counter package Thursday, a lot could change before it lands on Biden’s desk. There’s the option for Democrats to move the package through reconciliation. But Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-NY) and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) would need to ensure nearly all Democrats were on board, otherwise a vote to approve the package could still fail.  

For Democrats, it won’t be easy to override these state bans, either. Republicans are already rallying to keep these kinds of preemption clauses out of the infrastructure package. In an op-ed for The Hill earlier this month, Republican FCC Commissioner Brendan Carr said, “[The package] bets on government-owned networks as the future of connectivity. Yet these projects routinely fail, leaving communities unconnected, promises broken, and taxpayers footing the bill.”

Still, the pushback hasn’t curbed Democratic efforts to include preemption in the final infrastructure package. In an interview with The Verge on April 16th, Rep Anna Eshoo (D-CA) said that she was working on including her bill, The Community Broadband Act, introduced alongside Sen. Cory Booker (D-NJ), in the final package. Eshoo’s bill would remove state laws like North Carolina’s that restrict the creation and expansion of municipal networks.

“Am I hopeful? Yes,” Eshoo told The Verge. “Am I working to get it into a large bill? Absolutely. Because this is a great opportunity for actual implementation.”

Booker also said that he was working to include the bill in Senate negotiations. “In this digital age, internet access is a necessity,” Booker said. “As the proposal moves through Congress, I will push for the inclusion of my bill which will help give cities the flexibility they need to meet the needs of their residents by removing onerous barriers to creating more municipal broadband networks.”

For now, Edgecombe County students will have to wait to see if private providers expand service in the area so maybe one day they’ll be able to ask a virtual assembly speaker a question with their webcams on.

“We have to tell them, this is the way that the overall system has failed us,” Gordon-Bray says. “We are bearing the burden.”