Joe Biden invests a lot in small networks to close the digital divide

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Like hundreds of school districts across the country, Edgecombe County Public Schools in North Carolina had to move their courses online to protect their students during the coronavirus pandemic. Worksheets became websites and school gatherings became Zoom conferences with outside speakers.

But for students without a stable Internet connection, teachers had to hand-deliver homework packages that would normally have been put online. In meetings, students are asked to turn off their cameras so that their streams are not interrupted.

“We simply let the speakers know that our students are unlikely to be in front of the camera. And that’s because we don’t have good internet speeds here, ”said Arlane Gordon-Bray, community and industry partner for Edgecombe County Public Schools’ iZone program. The edge. “And we tell the kids it’s not your fault that you can’t fully participate in what we consider to be the norm of Internet etiquette.”

During our discussion on Friday, Gordon-Bray’s chime dropped three times, dropping our call. She had to call back at school on a landline so we could finish the interview.

In theory, help is on the way. The Biden government’s ambitious infrastructure proposal, the American Jobs Plan, includes $ 100 billion in broadband funding, with the goal of connecting every American to high-speed broadband by the end of the decade. But with the Republicans in the Senate dramatically cut total investment in their counter-proposal, the future of the package is unclear. For Biden’s plan to work, you have to go through a mess of local rules around municipal broadband and try to undo decades of rules about how places like Edgecombe County can get online.

Biden’s plan focuses on local and non-profit telecom companies, with public networks taking precedence over giants like Verizon and Comcast that dominate the better-served markets. In the proposal circulated last month, the White House described the US job plan as “a priority[ing] support for broadband networks owned, operated or affiliated with local governments, non-profit organizations and cooperatives’, so that providers are ‘less under pressure to make a profit’. According to the Institute for Local Self-Reliance. But even as these networks grow and expand across the country, 18 states limit them in one form or another, whether outright banning them or forbidding their expansion into neighboring provinces.

Greenlight Community Broadband, based in Wilson, North Carolina, is one of them municipal networks. Greenlight is the first state-owned fiber-optic network and has been in operation since 2008. But in 2011, the North Carolina legislature passed a law banning municipal telecom. Wilson’s Greenlight was exempt from this, as the company was already connecting people in the community. Still, it has become more difficult for the network to expand into neighboring communities, such as those in Edgecombe County, that could benefit from the service.

Removing these barriers is an important part of Biden’s plan. The proposal says it would promote “price transparency and competition” between ISPs by “removing barriers that prevent” these networks from “competing on a level playing field with private providers” such as AT&T, Comcast and Verizon. This could mean repealing laws in states like North Carolina that restrict the creation and expansion of public broadband networks.

“To say that communities cannot decide to vote, spend their own money, set up or expand their own utilities based on what their residents want and what they need locally is ridiculous,” says Angelina Panettieri, Legislative Director of Information Technology. and communications with the National League of Cities. “To tell people who are willing and able to invest the money in a good fiber optic infrastructure for their residents that they can’t, but also that the existing ISPs won’t do that for them either? It’s just ridiculous. “

The final form of the infrastructure package is still in the air. With Republicans introducing their own counter-package on Thursday, a lot could change before it lands on Biden’s desk. There is the option for Democrats to move the package through reconciliation. But Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-NY) and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) would have to make sure nearly all Democrats were on board or a vote to approve the package would still fail.

Nor will it be easy for Democrats to lift these state bans. Republicans are already in the process of banning these kinds of pre-emptive clauses from the infrastructure package. In an opinion in front of The hill earlier this monthRepublican FCC Commissioner Brendan Carr said: “[The package] betting on government owned networks as the future of connectivity. Yet these projects routinely fail, leaving communities disconnected, breaking promises and taxpayers paying the bill. “

Still, the pushback has not slowed democratic efforts to include a pre-emption in the final infrastructure package. In an interview with The edge on April 16, Rep Anna Eshoo (D-CA) said she was in the process of withdrawing her account, The Community Broadband Act, introduced alongside Senator Cory Booker (D-NJ), in the latest package. Eshoo’s bill would remove state laws like North Carolina’s that restrict the creation and expansion of municipal networks.

“Am I hopeful? Yes,” said Eshoo The edge. Am I working on getting it into a big bill? Absolutely. Because this is a great opportunity for actual implementation. “

Booker also said he was working to include the bill in Senate negotiations. “Internet access is a necessity in this digital age,” said Booker. As the proposal moves through Congress, I will push for the inclusion of my bill, which will give cities the flexibility they need to meet the needs of their residents by removing tough barriers to creating more municipalities. broadband networks. “

For now, Edgecombe County students will have to wait to see if private providers expand service in the area, so maybe one day they’ll be able to ask a virtual montage speaker with their webcams on.

“We have to tell them that this is how the overall system has failed us,” said Gordon-Bray. “We bear the burden.”