Biden’s Plan to Fix America’s Internet

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America, our internet sucks. And it’s time to try a different approach to fix it.

Millions of Americans do not have modern Internet service. It is a symptom of our internet dysfunction that we don’t even know how many. The unreliable number of Internet providers is 14.5 million households. Or maybe it’s 157 million people. Even for people with reliable access, Americans generally pay more for worse Internet service than our counterparts in most other wealthy countries.

The new White House infrastructure plan includes a proposal to spend $ 100 billion to extend fast Internet access to all homes. Its central premise is powerful: to achieve the Internet we all deserve, the federal government must be more involved, but not too much.

The Biden administration’s plan lacks details and it will be difficult to pass a large spending bill. But let me explain why the White House plan could be the restructuring we need.

First, how it works now:

We currently have the worst aspects of free-market capitalism and heavy-handed rule. Taxpayers’ money is poured into Internet service, but the money is often myopically spent. A system that promises light regulation actually has many rules, often encouraged by companies that protect their interests, but regulations are often misguided or poorly enforced.

The government now gives a lot of money and authority to Internet companies. The result is that Americans are shelling out billions of dollars each year to help build Internet networks in places like rural towns and subsidize the cost of service for schools, libraries, and homes.

But the funds often help sustain the Internet channels of the AOL era. And the money is spent on short-term solutions. Schools, for example, are helped to pay ISPs for Wi-Fi hotspots when they would be better off having fast Internet connections that they control.

“That is not to say that investments have not brought communities online. They have, ”said Kathryn de Wit, who manages the Internet access project for the Pew Charitable Trusts. But, he told me, “the time has come for the federal government to take a more active role.”

What’s in the White House Internet Plan?

This week, the administration set high-level goals: High-quality Internet pipes should reach every American home, and soon. Taxpayer money shouldn’t help fund outdated Internet technology. And we should pay less for internet service.

Those principles sound simple but deceptively revolutionary. The plan is essentially a statement that what we are doing now is not working, and the government should not just sit back and let the system continue.

As De Wit told me, the role of government should be to make everyone involved in the Internet system focus on one mission: to build fast, 21st-century Internet channels to reach everyone, and to make sure that the public instead of Internet companies are the first and last word in our Internet system.

When the federal government should get out of the way:

The Biden administration established principles, but proposes to leave room for maneuver for communities, states, and businesses to come up with Internet technologies and policies tailored to their needs.

My colleague Cecilia Kang wrote this week about community activists in Maryland who jury-rigged a system of antennas and routers to provide Internet service to low-income families. The White House wants to back more community-based Internet providers like that, as well as government-affiliated networks like the one in Chattanooga, Tennessee.

The White House’s support for alternative Internet providers is a message that big Internet companies like Comcast and AT&T can be part of the solution, but they are not the only answer. Not surprisingly, the big Internet companies are not enthusiastically embracing the Biden plan.

A trade group representing Comcast and others said America’s Internet plumbing was in good shape and the government should not micromanage Internet networks or prioritize government-owned networks. Here you will find more information about why ISPs are unhappy.

The challenges and opportunities that lie ahead:

I don’t want to downplay the difficulties in fixing America’s Internet system. It will be difficult to build Internet networks that reach all Americans, particularly in sparsely populated areas. It’s unclear how the White House plans to make the service affordable for everyone.

But let me emphasize how exciting the White House plan is. Identify the right problems, declare a worthy mission, and demand fewer obstacles to unite the best of government with the best of capitalism.

If the White House plan works, our Internet system could be less expensive and more effective for all of us.

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