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Sen. Ron Wyden pushes to raise standards for stimulus-funded broadband

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Pressure is mounting on the government to change its broadband definition

Photo by Erin Schaff for The Verge

Sen. Ron Wyden (D-OR) is calling on the Treasury Department to fund broadband projects in communities without access to 100Mbps upload and download speeds with the money allocated by the American Rescue Plan earlier this year.

In March, President Joe Biden signed the American Rescue Plan, directing the Treasury Department to distribute billions of dollars to help state and local governments amid the ongoing coronavirus pandemic. As part of the plan, this funding can be used to expand access to high-speed broadband internet in communities that need it.

However, the plan’s language suggests funding can only go to “unserved” or “underserved” communities. The Federal Communications Commission classifies communities with speeds of below 25Mbps down and 3Mbps up as “underserved.” In a letter to Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen Tuesday, Wyden is asking that the department expand that definition to communities with speeds less than 100Mbps up and down.

“The mass adoption of video calling, streaming, and other bandwidth-intensive apps by Americans during the COVID-19 pandemic has made it clear that miserly speeds and data caps are holding back telework, remote education and telehealth capacity,” Wyden wrote in the letter. “Simply put, it is not possible for a family of four to telework and engage in remote schooling while sharing 3 Mbps of upload bandwidth.”

The Treasury Department did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

The federal government’s definition of high-speed broadband has remained at the same level since 2015. But that definition has been called into question by lawmakers seeking to boost that standard as a result of heightened home internet usage due to the coronavirus pandemic. As infrastructure funding talks began earlier this year, Sen. Michael Bennet (D-CO) penned a letter to the FCC requesting that the agency change the definition of “high-speed” broadband to anything about 100Mbps symmetrical speeds.

It’s unclear if Biden’s latest American Jobs Plan or any subsequent broadband funding measures from Congress could change this definition in the future. The Biden administration’s broadband plan originally called for $100 billion to connect every American to high-speed internet by the end of the decade. Republicans pushed back against that number, resulting in the administration scaling back its proposal to $65 billion last week.