The House Energy and Commerce Committee held its first hearing on a major infrastructure bill called the “Leading Infrastructure for Tomorrow’s (LIFT) America Act,” which authorizes $45 billion in broadband infrastructure money. Such a massive infusion of federal dollars would reshape the United States communications market and help put the United States on more even footing with the EU and Asian market.
However, there is a real danger of lowering expectations of what can and should be done with a massive federal investment as a means of rigging who receives the federal dollars. If Congress does dedicate an enormous sum of money to build broadband infrastructure, it is important that it goes towards infrastructure that can withstand the test of time. As currently drafted, the legislation makes some concrete steps in that direction, but EFF finds that some areas need improvement in order to really make this bill about building infrastructure for the 21st century.
The Positives and Areas for Improvement in the LIFT Act
One of the most valuable provisions in the legislation is the creation of a $5 billion low-interest financing vehicle for broadband infrastructure projects. United States is missing a vibrant “open access fiber” industry like what exists in the EU and other parts of the world. Part of the problem is that we do not have a dedicated funding source for long-term focused broadband infrastructure planning that would support the construction efforts of non-traditional broadband market actors. Where it exists—sadly only in limited areas of the United States—this approach to broadband has taken root with incredible results. In Utah, for example, there are eleven options for $ 50-gigabit symmetrical services. In fact, some telecom analysts predict that open access fiber providers might be able to connect rural communities with zero, subsidies should long-term low-interest financing be made available.
The legislation focuses on “unserved areas,” which are defined as areas that do not have access to 25 Mbps download and 3 Mbps upload. Under this bill, 40 billion dollars in federal funds would be granted through a reverse auction (meaning whoever can build it the cheapest) to an entity that can deliver speeds of at least 100 Mbps download and 20 Mbps upload. This is a problematic plan, as instead of spending more for long-term, better infrastructure, we’d get low-cost improvements to nearly obsolete technology. This shortchanges these communities by not giving them the best Internet access—Internet access with speeds to handle whatever future technology brings—but by merely extending the life of slow, bad service.
If the goal is to make this a one-time infusion of taxpayer money to end the digital divide, then Congress must invest in the future. As former FCC Commissioner Mignon Clyburn testified before the Energy and Commerce Committee, “Congress should be investing taxpayers’ money in infrastructure that will deliver high-speed broadband of at least one Gigabit, future-proof symmetrical service.” EFF supports such an amendment to the legislation in order to overcome the speed chasm that exists among different broadband network technologies.
The Speed Chasm
In an interview with Professor Susan Crawford, Peter Rubin of WIRED summed up the massive discrepancy of potential capacity reachable by fiber optics as compared to copper, cable, and wireless networks as the “speed chasm.” Essentially, fiber optics have capacity potential that leaves other legacy networks like copper and coaxial cable in the dust. While we do not know the exact difference, what we do know is fiber has a capacity that is orders of magnitude greater than legacy efforts.
Some will argue to Congress that it is better to get slower speeds out to more people on the cheap, which means subsidizing incremental improvements to legacy copper and cable networks. The problem though is as consumption and demand for Internet products and services continue to increase, the legacy networks have no financially feasible way to keep pace with exponential growth absent transitioning to fiber due to the capacity differences.
Fiber optics are also incredibly cost efficient once deployed. This is because fiber to the home (FTTH) has the potential to be a “future proof” network infrastructure that probably will not have to be replaced for decades. We see evidence of this when analyzing the financials of the world’s fastest ISP (EPB Chattanooga) when it upgraded from a one-gigabit fiber network to a 10-gigabit network in 2016. You barely see a change in capital expenditures while profits continue to rise year after year and likely future advancements in capacity will be even cheaper by comparison as it leverages advancements in computer technology.
Congress Has an Enormous Opportunity to Bring Millions of Americans into the 21st Century of Broadband Access
EFF supports efforts that seek to connect all Americans to fiber infrastructure, which can support gigabit and 10-gigabit networks today with unknown potential to expand into the future. Giving everyone access to affordable high-speed broadband will ensure that everyone benefits from the Internet as both creators and distributors of content and culture. But under-investing and lowering expectations on what should be built will only put a temporary, and expensive, band-aid on the problem of the digital divide.