Democratic presidential hopeful Elizabeth Warren announced her policy proposal to invest $85 billion in a public option for expanding broadband to rural areas.
Warren’s plan is laid out in a blog post, which outlines all her policy proposals for rural America.
“I will make sure every home in America has a fiber broadband connection at a price families can afford. That means publicly-owned and operated networks — and no giant ISPs running away with taxpayer dollars,” the Massachusetts senator wrote.
Warren released her program just in time for her road trip to Iowa. She tweeted: “I’m kicking off my Iowa road trip today! As we head into Iowa, I’m sharing my new plans to invest in rural communities. It’s time to put their interests ahead of giant companies and Wall Street.”
I'm kicking off my Iowa road trip today! As we head into Iowa, I'm sharing my new plans to invest in rural communities. It's time to put their interests ahead of giant companies and Wall Street. https://t.co/P1lbwrcTrR
— Elizabeth Warren (@ewarren) August 7, 2019
Warren’s policy proposal for a public option of broadband can be broken down into three key parts:
1. Create an ‘Office of Broadband Access’
In Warren’s proposal, she says private market broadband access is lacking in rural communities. In her first point, Warren says 26 states have laws that hinder municipalities from building their own broadband infrastructure. Her original solution was to get rid of these laws and return power to local governments.
However, many of the laws Warren wants to repeal encourage basic reporting for businesses trying to implement infrastructure in these communities.
“At a really basic level, I don’t think she’s correct in saying that taking away these laws will help,” said Will Rinehart, Director of Technology and Innovation Policy at the American Action Forum. “You do really basic reporting in this process, which I think is good governance.”
Rinehart said he understands why Warren wants to get rid of laws that limit broadband, but he said expanding these good policies on a federal level may lead to tension between states and the federal government.
Warren wants to create an “Office of Broadband Access,” which will work under the Department of Economic Development. Essentially, Warren would repeal basic oversight laws at a local level and move those oversight laws to the federal level.
The Office of Broadband Access would manage a new $85 billion grant program. Localities could apply for these grants, but they would “have to offer at least one plan with 100 Mbps/100 Mpbs speeds and one discount internet plan for low-income customers with a prepaid feature or a low monthly rate.”
“A lot of the funding is already there,” Rinehart said. “There is $8 billion already out there in broadband development. And, a lot of [these policies] have already been implemented by the FCC and Department of Agriculture.”
Rinehart was tentative to endorse any aspect of Warren’s plan that expanded federal government power. “You spend money, but you don’t know why you’re spending it. I would hope there would be more nuanced perspective,” Rinehart said.
2. Restoring Net Neutrality
As part of Warren’s policy proposal, she plans to appoint a commissioner from the Federal Communications Commission to restore net neutrality.
“The fundamental problem with network neutrality, to me, is that network neutrality doesn’t fall within the jurisdiction of the FCC or on the federal level,” Rinehart said. “The fact that she wants to expand the FCC isn’t surprising, but it’s not going to fix the fundamental issue.”
While Warren touts that she wants to restore net neutrality, she opposed a bipartisan bill to codify net neutrality introduced by a Republican congresswoman.
According to the Associated Press, Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers, R-Wash., introduced a bill “that would prohibit practices that are most concerning to net neutrality advocates, including the intentional slowing of service, blocking access to certain content and charging some users more for faster service.”
Warren was against this bill as she wants the power in the hands of the FCC rather than codifying these ideas into law.
“There’s nothing that says the FCC has this jurisdiction, though,” said Rinehart. “I think that’s bad policy.”
3. Ensuring Online Access to Bolster the Economy
Warren’s final policy point reads:
Even when there’s access to broadband internet — and even when it’s available at an affordable price — people may still not take advantage of it because they don’t know how to use it. That’s why I will work to pass the Digital Equity Act, which invests $2.5 billion over ten years to help states develop digital equity plans and launch digital inclusion projects.
Rinehart said one fundamental reality Warren’s plan omits is that census data reveals rural regions tend to have older populations. Rural regions may have less access to networks because older people don’t see broadband as a necessity.
“When it comes to reinvigorating rural regions, these places don’t have broadband issues at the top of their priorities. They’re focused on the opioid crisis,” Rinehart said.
Rinehart also said Warren’s plan cites 2017 data, but many changes have occurred in the past two years in terms of infrastructure.
In 2016 and 2017, the Trump administration and Congress experienced a big push to pass an infrastructure bill. Because that didn’t happen, Rinehart said states have now been figuring this out at a local level.
“Since they don’t assume they’re getting help on the federal level, they’ve decided to do their own work.”
So, what policy proposals would help to solve these issues?
“I just don’t think there’s any one single best answer,” Rinehart said. “I think the FCC should clear the house for the best practices, which they’re doing.”
One policy proposal is that the FCC should put out reports on different localities that are finding success in expanding broadband access. This way, other localities can attempt to copy successful plans. The funding is already available.
Rinehart concluded that Warren’s plan insinuates that if we stick broadband in these rural areas, we are going to solve their problems. But a more comprehensive solution is needed.