Hillary Clinton pledges a broadband connection in every house by 2020 if she is elected president in November.
This 21st century version of the 1928 pledge by the Republican Party of “a chicken in every pot and a car in every garage” if Herbert Hoover was elected may be about as realistic — we know how the 1930s turned out for America, after all — and it would certainly be expensive.
Recent reports by the Federal Communications Commission show that nearly 40 percent of rural residents around the country lack broadband access. And that’s assuming the standards don’t keep increasing in the next four years as technology evolves — the FCC boosted the standard definition of broadband by a factor of 2.5 just last year, from a download speed of 10 megabits per second to 25 mbps.
In discussing her infrastructure plan on her campaign website, Clinton touts the importance of broadband.
“Clinton believes that high-speed Internet access is not a luxury; it is a necessity for equal opportunity and social mobility in a 21st century economy,” the website says.
How’s she going to pay for it all? Your tax dollars will be a big part of it, of course.
Clinton has pledged further spending of tax money on programs such as the Connect America Fund, Rural Utilities Service and Broadband Technology Opportunities Program. She said she’d push federal agencies to consider providers of fiber-optic cable, fixed wireless and satellite technologies as potential recipients of the money.
Earlier this year, the Federal Communications Commission announced the expansion of its Lifeline program. The budget will increase to $2.25 billion annually, and those low-income customers who qualify will get subsidies to pay for high-speed home internet or data plans for their cell phones.
Clinton has also talked of establishing a $25 billion infrastructure bank, from which communities could draw to not only repair roads and bridges, but also string fiber-optic cable or other methods of building broadband networks.
The bank would be operated by “an independent, government-owned infrastructure bank with a bipartisan board of highly qualified directors authorized to make critical investments in building 21st century infrastructure,” her website touts.
The $25 billion bank would be part of $275 billion in additional federal infrastructure spending over the next five years under her plan.
Clinton said she’d work to encourage more people to connect to high-speed internet, as well.
“Clinton will also build upon the Obama Administration’s efforts to increase not just broadband access but also broadband adoption, both by fostering greater competition in local broadband markets to bring down prices and by investing in low-income communities and in digital literacy programs,” the website says.
Government officials have pushed broadband as a utility on par with the expansion of electricity in the early 20th century. Tom Struble, policy counsel for TechFreedom, notes that with the different methods of offering high-speed internet, that’s the wrong model.
“You can provide home broadband by transmitting signals along a wire or cable physically hooked up to the end-user’s home, or by transmitting signals over the air from a wireless base station (which typically has a wireline connection) to an antenna atop the end-user’s home,” he wrote to Watchdog.org in an email. “The underlying service characteristics may differ slightly (in terms of available bandwidth, latency, etc.), but the user experience may be essentially unchanged, or only slightly worse off, while making the deployment much more economical, as the cost of laying or upgrading wireline connections over the last mile consumes a disproportionate amount of [capital expenditure.]”
Brent Skorup, who studies broadband issues for the Mercatus Center in Fairfax, Virginia, told Watchdog the goal of 100 percent broadband usage is unrealistic because some people — largely skewing older — have no interest in internet access.
“It’s been 100 years and there’s still not 100 percent penetration of the phone market,” he noted.
Providing high-speed internet to 100 percent of people who want it is another matter. With improving technology, particularly in wireless broadband, that could be feasible. Skorup notes that about 10 percent of households have neither a home phone nor a wired internet connection, choosing to use smartphones for both voice and internet.
“I think you’ll see that continue,” he said.
Skorup said Clinton’s plan of offering stimulus-type funding for municipal broadband projects would be a mistake, noting the $111 million Chattanooga got for its internet network that has yet to pan out.
“You don’t see the economic development that’s promised with these,” he said.
He said if tax funds are used to boost broadband adoption, it’s better to offer people vouchers through programs like Lifeline rather than give funds to certain providers, which can allow politics to distort the market.
“You let consumers optimize according to their own wants,” Skorup said.