When President Biden signed the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law last November, it promised $45 billion to help upgrade America’s spotty broadband infrastructure.
This week, administration officials offered more details on how that money will be made available through a new “Internet for All” program that aims to bring high-speed internet to every part of the U.S.
“We are going to ensure every American will have access to technologies that allow them to attend class, start a small business, visit with their doctor, and participate in the modern economy,” Commerce Secretary Gina Raimondo said in a statement.
During a recent Yahoo Finance interview, she described broadband efforts as “a huge piece of business here at the Department of Commerce.” She visited Durham, North Carolina Friday for the announcement, reportedly saying “this is by far the biggest investment in internet ever in our nation’s history."
It's 'going to transform lives'
Biden officials promise the program will help increase internet access in every corner of our country, including many places that have been left behind.
"That's going to transform lives," Deputy Secretary of Commerce Don Graves said Monday of the program, adding that increased access to telemedicine could even save lives in addition to changing them.
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi added that Friday’s announcement is "another key step to ensure that working families can succeed in the 21st Century economy.”
Recent government data has revealed that at least 19 million Americans lack broadband access. Other estimates have pegged the number lacking adequate connections higher, at 42 million. Microsoft (MSFT) has also studied the issue and says the true number could be as high as 120.4 million people lacking high-speed internet.
The infrastructure law put aside $65 billion in total for the broadband efforts, with $15 billion funding a program to lower internet costs for consumers. Biden announced Monday that 20 leading internet service providers have agreed to offer low-cost plans that will be free for millions of Americans after a refund.
The lion’s share of the money for broadband infrastructure — $42.5 billion — will go into a new Broadband Equity, Access, and Deployment Program that will help states improve internet connections. The fund is one of a host of programs open for applications to improve internet speed and encourage Americans to sign up for broadband.
An outstanding question: Municipal broadband
One question the industry will watch closely is how much of the money will eventually go towards efforts to allow more cities to offer internet service directly. Vice President Kamala Harris, for one, has spoken about prodding more cities to set up shop and offer service directly.
The latest data shows more than 600 communities are served by some form of a municipal network but others are held back by local laws that bar them from operating alongside private service providers.
"We are strongly encouraging every state to waive the rules around banning municipality engagement and involvement. We think that it makes a lot of sense for states to be working directly with their municipalities to find the best options to delivering access for every single community in the country," Graves said.
That effort is likely to run into resistance from businesses, such as AT&T (T), whose CEO John Stankey told Yahoo Finance last year that he's worried about plans to “overbuild existing infrastructure that’s already in place with taxpayer-funded money." On Friday, USTelecom, an industry group that represents AT&T and others, told Yahoo Finance that the companies would help “ensure that this historic funding will be put to its best and highest uses.”
Moreover, it's not always easy to determine which parts of the country actually lack broadband. The Federal Communications Commission is working to develop more comprehensive broadband access maps this year to replace the hodgepodge of resources that exist currently, including maps operated by private companies like Microsoft (MSFT) and others.
The FCC says the agency has made significant progress towards new maps and will be gathering additional data the summer ahead of a planned release in the fall. The new maps will allow states and Washington policymakers to more accurately target the funds and other resources to the areas that need the most help.
This post has been updated with additional context.
Ben Werschkul is a writer and producer for Yahoo Finance in Washington, DC.