Before embarking on a four-day tour across Iowa, Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) is proposing what she is calling a public option for broadband, as part of a broader policy suite of ideas aimed at improving the lives of rural Americans.
“I will make sure every home in America has a fiber broadband connection at a price families can afford,” she writes in a Medium post proposing the initiative. “That means publicly-owned and operated networks—and no giant ISPs running away with taxpayer dollars.”
The plan for expansion of broadband access across the country, important for things like telemedicine, entails allowing local governments to build their own broadband networks with a federal statute, creating a new federal office with an $85 billion grant program and prohibiting “the range of sneaky maneuvers giant private providers use to unfairly squeeze out competition, hold governments hostage, and drive up prices.”
Warren writes that in 2017 over a quarter of people living in rural areas and over 30 percent living on tribal lands did not have access to minimum speed broadband and that many residents in urban areas with access to fiber broadband can’t afford it.
“Just like the electric companies eighty years ago, today’s biggest internet service providers (ISPs) have left large parts of the country unserved or dramatically underserved,” she writes. “Not only that, they have deliberately restricted competition, kept prices high, and used their armies of lobbyists to convince state legislatures to ban municipalities from building their own public networks. Meanwhile, the federal government has shoveled billions of taxpayer dollars to private ISPs in an effort to expand broadband to remote areas, but those providers have done the bare minimum with these resources—offering internet speeds well below the FCC minimum.”
Warren proposes the creation of an Office of Broadband Access, which would administer $85 billion in federal grants for nonprofit organizations, tribes, cities, and counties to build their own infrastructure for high-speed broadband. In turn, the federal government would pay 90 cents on the dollar for construction, but the applicants would need to “offer high-speed public broadband directly to every home in their application area,” with an additional discount internet plan for low-income customers. Warren also wants $5 billion to be set aside specifically for 100 percent federal grants to tribal nations to expand their broadband access.
The idea of expanding rural broadband access has been featured both in recent gubernatorial races and the current presidential contest. Former vice president Joe Biden recently proposed investing $20 billion in rural broadband infrastructure, Sen. Michael Bennet (D-CO) mentioned a “$40 billion capital investment” in broadband to help rural health providers, and Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT) has targeted the issue in his plan for rural Americans.