Commentary: Is $100 billion more for broadband really necessary?

We’re having important national and state policy conversations right now about infrastructure, and even the definition of infrastructure. One new component of infrastructure that is clearly critical is broadband digital connectivity.

Especially during the pandemic, with many people working, and many children learning, at home, access to fast Internet connections has been essential for work, education, entertainment, shopping and paying bills. Broadband is considered to be as important as electricity or good roads.

And many people lack fast connections, especially in rural areas.

Therefore, the Biden administration is proposing spending tens of billions of dollars to provide broadband to everyone, on top of billions more already spent or planned.

But is all that spending really needed?    

According to USA Today, Biden has $100 billion in his infrastructure proposal to ensure everyone has access to broadband. That’s on top of nearly $50 billion spent on broadband programs from 2009 to 2017, and another $20 billion already programmed to be spent over the next decade for rural broadband, and an additional $9 billion for 5G high-speed wireless Internet. Billions of additional dollars are being spent for broadband from the three huge pandemic relief packages, according to the USA Today article.

I really question the expenditure of so many billions of our tax dollars (actually borrowed money) for broadband. I’m confident the private sector is going to quite adequately fill in the gaps where broadband is not available, and it will be done far less expensively than a government program.

As one who lives in a very remote corner of rural Utah, I can attest that broadband is absolutely essential. My wife and I are on our computers, connected to the Internet, for many hours every day. We frequently participate in Zoom meetings, sometimes different meetings at the same time. We don’t get a good cell phone signal where we live, so we use wifi from our Internet connection to make and receive cell phone calls. My wife also downloads Netflix movies.

And we do all of this over a HughesNet satellite connection – which is available anywhere in the country. Yes, the connection can be a little slow at times. We sometimes wait a few seconds for a graphics-heavy web page to load. I sometimes wish our connection was faster. But it is adequate.

And HughesNet has some serious private-sector competition attempting to provide better service. Some people like Viasat, which is also available nearly everywhere, better than HughesNet. And companies like Globalstar, Iridium, Kuiper Systems, O3B MEO, OneWeb, and Orbcomm are working on improved satellite service to provide Internet connectivity.

But the 500-pound gorilla of future broadband is Elon Musk’s Starlink, with thousands of low-orbit satellites already launched from Musk’s SpaceX program. Starlink already has nearly 1,600 satellites in orbit and is providing limited internet service to very positive reviews. Musk plans to deploy 12,000 satellites within a few years and has asked for FCC approval to launch another 30,000.

Starlink upload and download speeds are blazingly fast. And his 12,000-satellite operation is expected to cost $10 billion – a fraction of the hundreds of billions of dollars planned to be spent by federal, state and local governments. Monthly cost is $99 a month with unlimited data.

Certainly, connectivity is only one part of what’s needed. In some cases, additional hardware is required and families and students need laptops. Cost is also a challenge. A variety of programs are available through schools and other agencies to help with those needs. Subsidies are justified in many cases.

Personally, I believe that broadband will be ubiquitous, competitive, and very inexpensive within a few years. I fear the federal strategy is to flood this zone with immense amounts of (borrowed) money without taking into account what the private sector, state governments, local governments and schools are doing. The result is going to be an amazing amount of wasted money.

It was only a few years ago that leftist interest groups and politicians were championing “net neutrality,” arguing that competition was limited and demanding that internet service providers be regulated like utilities. When their proposal failed, there was a lot of handwringing, gloom and doom, and predictions of skyrocketing Internet access prices and even the collapse of the Internet.

That was a lot of wasted angst. By allowing the private sector to work, competition is going to keep prices low and access abundant. Let’s not goof it up with a flood of borrowed money.