The Senate’s Infrastructure Bill Redefines ‘Broadband’ To Manufacture a Connectivity Crisis
The $1 trillion infrastructure bill that the Senate approved in a bipartisan fashion on Tuesday morning includes a provision to redefine “broadband” internet in a way that could leave many American households with seemingly inadequate online access. What is more, the bill relies on those same dubious new definitions to direct billions of dollars in new government spending.
Tucked inside the 2,700-plus page bill is a new set of definitions for upload and download speeds that federal regulators will use to determine which parts of the country are “underserved” by broadband internet. In turn, those updated definitions will guide the distribution of $42 billion in federal grants that the bill authorizes for “deploying broadband, closing the digital divide, and enhancing economic growth and job creation.”
The bill, which cleared the Senate with 69 affirmative votes on Tuesday, classifies a household as “underserved” if it does not have access to a connection with download speeds of at least 100 megabits per second and upload speeds of at least 20 megabits per second. As Reason has previously explained, that’s a significant change in the government’s standard for satisfactory internet speeds: under current rules maintained by the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), a broadband connection is defined as having speeds of at least 25 megabits per second and upload speeds of at least three megabits per second.
Under the current definition, the FCC estimates that there were about 14.5 million Americans who lacked access to broadband internet at the end of 2019. But that number has been falling rapidly—it decreased by about 20 percent during 2019 alone, according to an FCC update published in January of this year. The so-called “digital divide” is still a problem, but it is an increasingly narrow one. The infrastructure bill will effectively widen it.
The definition of “broadband” has changed several times as technology and consumers’ demand for internet services have increased. The current “25/3” standard has existed only since 2015. The first standard, in place from 1996 through 2010, required at least 200 kilobits per second upload and download speeds. From 2010 through 2015, that was upped to 4 megabits per second for downloads and 1 megabit per second for uploads.
What’s different about this latest change, however, is that the new standards far ex
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