Commerce Secretary Gina Raimondo said she is committed to the administration’s goal of universal broadband by 2030, but cautioned that distributing funds from the new infrastructure law to meet that deadline could take years.
“I knew the president would be able to deliver on this,” Raimondo said in an interview with CNBC. “We’ve been working on it since I’ve gotten here. We haven’t waited for the bill to pass.”
The trillion-dollar infrastructure package that President Biden signed into law last month includes $65 billion to improve broadband access and affordability. Most of that is funneled through Commerce, and Raimondo said that some of those dollars – such as money for tribal governments – are starting to trickle out.
But the bulk of the funding will take longer. The department plans to set up a process for states to apply for the money by May. It’s also waiting on the FCC to update its controversial broadband access maps, expected around the middle of next year. Disbursing the money may not occur until 2023.
Still, Raimondo said she is confident that every household will be connected by the end of the decade – if not sooner.
“People will start to see relief immediately,” she said. “But it will take us years in order to get it all out the door effectively to achieve the vision of making sure every single American has high-speed, affordable broadband.”
The department is already in talks with state and local leaders as well as industry executives, whom Raimondo called “critical” to getting the infrastructure bill passed. On Wednesday, she will hold a virtual roundtable with Etsy CEO Josh Silverman, eBay CEO Jamie Iannone, Airbnb co-founder Nathan Blecharczyk and Block (formerly Square) CFO Amrita Ahuja to discuss the importance of broadband access to their bottom line and the country’s economic growth.
According to the Federal Communications Commission, about 14.5 million people do not have access to high-speed internet. But outside experts warn the number is likely much higher.
Broadband Now projects as many as 42 million people lack access to high-speed internet. Microsoft has said as many as half of all Americans do not use broadband, even if they have access to it.
Connectivity also varies within each state. Polling from Pew Research shows only 72 percent of households in rural communities reported having access to broadband at home, compared to 79 percent in urban areas.
“There is a political divide which is contributing to the budget divide, which is contributing to the digital divide,” said Bhaskar Chakravorti, dean of global business at the Fletcher School at Tufts University and founder of its Digital Planet research initiative.
Closing the gap could actually cost as much as $240 billion, he said, more than double the amount the administration has pledged to spend. Strengthening public-private partnerships could be one way to make up the difference.
“The private sector benefits from having a community that is internet-connected,” Chakravorti said.
Broadband access is a priority not only for large tech companies, but also for the small businesses that rely on their platforms. Raimondo said female entrepreneurs could especially benefit.
“Women are not back in the workforce the way we were pre-pandemic,” she said. “One way for women to make some money in a flexible way and still be able to be there for their families is selling on Etsy, being a host on Airbnb. But you cannot do that without broadband.”
Katherine Eggers and her husband moved to a nine-acre farm in rural Colorado in the middle of the pandemic. Cell service is spotty among the lavender fields and sagebrush. And for the first month in her new home, there was no high-speed internet – a major problem for a virtual yoga instructor.
“I thought I was going to have to quit my online job because there wasn’t good internet,” Eggers recalled. “It was definitely on the table.”
However, she soon got connected through a nonprofit that specializes in wireless broadband, allowing Eggers to earn her living entirely from their dream home.
Now, her yoga classes are going strong. She installed high-speed internet in her guest house and started renting it out on Airbnb for $85 a night. In fact, her internet connection now works so well that Eggers decided to enroll in a master’s program in counseling – online.
“When we bought this house, we said this is where we’re going to die,” Eggers said. “So we plan to be here for a very long time.”