Elizabeth Warren unveils $85 billion proposal to guarantee high-speed internet access

GP: Dems debate Detroit Elizabeth Warren 190730
Senator from Massachusetts Elizabeth Warren in the first round of the second Democratic primary debate of the 2020 presidential campaign season hosted by CNN at the Fox Theatre in Detroit, Michigan on July 30, 2019.
Brendan Smialowski | AFP | Getty Images

Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., unveiled a proposal to guarantee universal high-speed internet access on Wednesday as part of a new plan to invest in rural communities.

“I will make sure every home in America has a fiber broadband connection at a price families can afford,” the presidential contender wrote in a post on the blogging platform Medium. “That means publicly-owned and operated networks — and no giant [internet service providers] running away with taxpayer dollars.”

Warren said she will create a federal Office of Broadband Access that will manage an $85 billion grant program. The grants will be awarded to electricity and telephone cooperatives, nonprofits, tribes, and municipalities that pledge to bring high-speed internet to underserved areas.

And, she wrote, her administration will “preempt” laws on the books in 26 states that discourage or prevent municipalities from building their own broadband infrastructure.

“The federal government will pay 90 cents on the dollar for construction under these grants,” Warren wrote “In exchange, applicants will be required to offer high-speed public broadband directly to every home in their application area.”

Applicants will be required to offer internet speed at 100 megabits per second — fast enough to download a two hour movie in a little over two minutes — in addition to at least one discount internet plan.

$5 billion will be specifically earmarked to expand broadband access on Native American lands, according to the plan.

Warren, who as part of her rural investment plan also calls for new antitrust action against hospital mergers, is the latest Democrat running for president to specifically address broadband access in rural communities.

Former Vice President Joe Biden, the front-runner, put forward a plan last month to invest $20 billion in rural broadband infrastructure. Sen. Bernie Sanders, the Vermont independent, has pledged to bring broadband to bring “high-speed Internet access and broadband services to every American.”

Warren’s proposal cites low rates of internet access in rural communities.

About one in four people living in rural areas, and one in three people living on tribal lands, did not have access to minimum speed broadband, the proposal says, citing an FCC report released earlier this year. And in urban areas, Warren wrote, many low-income residents cannot afford to connect to the internet despite technically having access.

“One of the best tools for unlocking economic opportunity and advances in health care, like telemedicine, is access to reliable, high-speed Internet. In the twenty-first century, every home should have access to this technology — but we’re not even close to that today,” Warren wrote.

As a precedent for the type of wide-scale infrastructure investment her plan calls for, Warren noted the dramatic investment in U.S. electricity access in the mid-20th century.

“Just like the electric companies eighty years ago, today’s biggest internet service providers (ISPs) have left large parts of the country unserved or dramatically underserved,” she wrote.

Warren wrote that the plan will be paid for by “changing the tax laws that encourage companies to merge and reduce competition.”

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