Biden says he has deal to lower Internet prices, but the details will matter

President Joe Biden speaking in front of a podium at a Mack Truck facility.
Enlarge / President Joe Biden speaks at Mack Truck Lehigh Valley Operations on July 28, 2021, in Macungie, Pennsylvania.

A bipartisan infrastructure deal will provide $65 billion for broadband deployment and require ISPs that receive funding “to offer a low-cost affordable plan,” the White House said today.

President Joe Biden pledged early in his term to lower Internet prices, and this appears to be the first tangible result—although it will only affect ISPs that take the new funding, and the White House didn’t release key details about the affordable Internet plans. A White House fact sheet on the $550 billion infrastructure deal with senators included two paragraphs summarizing the broadband portions:

[M]ore than 30 million Americans live in areas where there is no broadband infrastructure that provides minimally acceptable speeds—a particular problem in rural communities throughout the country. The deal’s $65 billion investment ensures every American has access to reliable high-speed Internet with a historic investment in broadband infrastructure deployment, just as the federal government made a historic effort to provide electricity to every American nearly one hundred years ago.

The bill will also help lower prices for Internet service by requiring funding recipients to offer a low-cost affordable plan, by creating price transparency and helping families comparison shop, and by boosting competition in areas where existing providers aren’t providing adequate service. It will also help close the digital divide by passing the Digital Equity Act, ending digital redlining, and creating a permanent program to help more low-income households access the Internet.

“Low-cost” definition not released yet

The announcement didn’t say what speeds or prices will have to be offered by government-funded ISPs in the required low-cost plans. It also didn’t say whether those low-cost plans would be available to all customers or only those who meet certain income requirements.

The promise of “a permanent program to help more low-income households access the Internet” may mean the $50-per-month subsidies that Congress created for the pandemic will continue in some form. Currently, the subsidies are slated to end when the $3.2 billion fund runs out of money or six months after the Department of Health and Human Services declares an end to the COVID-19 health emergency, whichever is sooner. Four million households have enrolled in the subsidy program so far.

The $65 billion is down from Biden’s original proposal of $100 billion over eight years.

Low upload standard would help wireless and cable ISPs

Biden’s announcement didn’t specify the minimum upload and download speeds ISPs will have to offer to qualify for government funding. As Light Reading notes, fixed-wireless home-Internet providers have been “desperate to convince policymakers to settle on a definition of broadband that wireless technologies would be able to meet.” Cable companies have similarly been pushing for a standard with low upload speeds because cable technology is restricted on the upstream side.

Light Reading wrote that a “draft of the bipartisan broadband bill that’s currently wending through Congress” would allow funding for ISPs that offer 100Mbps downloads and 20Mbps uploads, which would make it easier for fixed-wireless and cable providers to win government funding. A 100Mbps standard for both downloads and uploads would guarantee more money for fiber, which provides the fastest upload speeds and is the most future-proof broadband technology.

Ending redlining and hidden fees

The Digital Equity Act that Biden said is included in the deal was introduced in March and would establish one grant program “to make distributions to states based on their populations, demographics, and availability and adoption of broadband.” Meanwhile, another grant program would be “for supporting efforts to achieve digital equity, promote digital inclusion, and stimulate adoption of broadband,” according to the official bill summary.

It’s not clear whether Biden’s deal with Congress does anything else to end digital redlining, which refers to ISPs building networks in wealthy areas while ignoring poor ones.

The White House promise of “creating price transparency and helping families comparison shop” seems to refer to Biden’s previously stated goals of ending hidden fees by requiring ISPs to clearly disclose the full cost of service and limiting early termination fees that make it expensive to switch ISPs in areas where customers actually have choices. Biden recently urged the FCC to handle that, but it could also be mandated by Congress.

As always, the details will have a big impact on whether the legislation helps people get fast, affordable Internet service. For example, many ISPs are only letting customers get the $50-per-month pandemic subsidies on certain plans, in some cases forcing users onto more expensive plans to get the temporary discount. Sending money to ISPs for broadband deployment also requires careful management to ensure that money is sent to the right places and to ISPs that aren’t likely to miss build-out deadlines.

Biden originally pledged to give priority access to funding to municipal broadband networks and other publicly owned providers, but he apparently dropped that goal in negotiations. Republicans have tried to ban municipal broadband networks entirely and consistently seek to send government funding to private ISPs instead.

“Slim number of Republicans” support deal

There are apparently just enough Republicans willing to vote for the infrastructure deal to give it the 60 votes needed to cut off debate in the the Senate. “A slim number of Republicans are expected to vote to advance” the bill in a vote expected to happen Wednesday night, Politico reported.

The lead-up to the vote may be contentious. “This idea of getting on a bill that’s still being written is still a bad idea,” Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas) said, according to Politico. “We’re going to insist upon amendments because this bill’s been negotiated by 20 people but there are 80 other senators.”

A vote tonight apparently wouldn’t be the end of the Senate process, NPR wrote:

Sen. Joe Manchin, (D-W.Va.) said he expects the first vote will be on placeholder legislation that will later be amended to include the full text of the agreement. That process is not uncommon; it allows the Senate to move ahead while staff drafts the legal legislative language necessary for a bill to come up for a vote.

It’s not clear exactly when the full text will be available publicly. “Sen. Kyrsten Sinema (D-Ariz.), who served as the lead negotiator for the Democrats, said lawmakers are putting the finishing touches on the bill but should allow the rest of the Senate to begin reading it soon,” according to NBC News. Sinema also said that lawmakers have “most of the text done, so we’ll be releasing it today, and then we’ll update it as we get those last pieces finalized.”