By Michelle Ricker December 16, 2021
Summary: There’s a new infrastructure bill in town — and it’s making waves by expanding internet access across the country (plus a whole lot more). Find out how it’s going to improve internet access in historically underserved communities, the new speed requirements, and what all of this means for your wallet.
You may have heard about the $1.2 trillion infrastructure bill that was recently passed. It includes funding for everything from energy sources to roads to internet access. But you might be wondering what that means for your wallet. After all, a trillion dollars is tough to wrap your mind around, especially when it’s being distributed among multiple states and sectors.
Let’s break it down.
The new infrastructure bill is touted as a once-in-a-generation investment. While it is not a stimulus package, it is hoped that it will help mitigate inflation and keep the country competitive. Included in the bill are plans to:
Whew! That’s a lot of plans! Each initiative is important and many of them will likely affect your life — and wallet — in a positive way. But for now, let’s focus on expanding access to reliable, high-speed internet, something that we’re passionate about as well.
If you live in a major urban area, you probably have several options for your internet provider and speeds. Unfortunately, that’s not true across the entire United States. But how many people lack access to broadband internet? Well, no one knows for sure. According to NPR, in 2019 the FCC estimated 14.5 million people, but data aggregator BroadbandNow estimated 42 million. The White House lands in between, estimating that 30 million people are without broadband access. (Those estimates do not include households who have broadband available in their area but do not subscribe due to high costs or other reasons.)
Most people can agree that internet access is essential, so why isn’t it available everywhere?
Most people who lack broadband access live in rural, remote, low-income, and/or tribal lands. Between geographic barriers (like mountains) and low population density (which could require miles of internet lines to be put into the ground for a handful of households), some internet providers can’t justify the cost. It then falls on the public sector to find incentives for providers to invest in those communities.
And that’s exactly what this bill is aiming to do.
This bill includes $65 billion for broadband access in rural areas, $2 billion of which is set aside for the Tribal Broadband Connectivity Program (a federal grant program). Internet providers will be eligible for grants to incentivize their expansion into historically underserved areas and offset the costs of building new infrastructure.
But to be eligible for the grants, there are some requirements — including the speed they provide.
Expanded internet access sounds great — but is it going to be the same slow internet that many areas across the country have been stuck with for decades? Good news: there’s a provision in the bill regarding speed!
Broadband internet is technically defined by the FCC as 25 Mbps download and 3 Mbps upload speeds. These standards were introduced in 2015 as an improvement over the previous standards of 4 Mbps download and 1 Mbps upload. However, the FCC has come under criticism by many people who feel the current definition is outdated, and that criticism grew louder during the COVID-19 pandemic as more of us were working, schooling, getting healthcare, and more — from home. These activities all require high amounts of data and may even be happening simultaneously.
While the definition of broadband hasn’t been updated yet, there is a provision in the new infrastructure bill that internet providers who receive federal funding have to offer speeds of at least 100 Mbps download and 20 Mbps upload.
The original bill called for symmetrical speeds — aka the same upload and download speeds — but some cable internet providers (not all) felt that most households didn’t require more than 20 Mbps of upload speed.
Wondering why upload speed has suddenly become so important? You can thank things like videoconferencing and live, competitive gaming. Most of what people are doing online still primarily needs download speed — think streaming, checking email, surfing the web, and more. Download speed is how fast your connection can receive information. But upload speed has to do with how fast you can send data. This is important if you want to avoid freezing during video calls or telehealth appointments, compete in a gaming tournament without having your moves lag, or send large documents.
In other words, as remote work, school, and telehealth have all been on the rise, upload speeds need to get faster, too. That’s why the new threshold for the infrastructure bill requires speeds of 20 Mbps.
Internet that’s faster and more widely available? Sounds like a recipe for success.
It’s safe to say many Americans will be positively impacted by this bill. If you live in an internet desert, your level of access should change. And if you’re only able to access slow speeds, you can look forward to enjoying faster connections.
What if you live in an urban area and already enjoy high speeds? Think about all the people you connect with, like loved ones, coworkers, and future employers. Wouldn’t it be great to have a stronger connection when chatting with them? Or to be able to vacation in a more remote area but not be fully cut off from technology? The possibilities are endless! Plus, this bill builds on existing programs.
During the summer of 2021, the Emergency Broadband Benefit (EBB) came into effect, which provided a discount on internet services of up to $50 per month for eligible households. This was a temporary program to help keep households connected during the COVID-19 pandemic and is set to end on December 30, 2021.
The program will continue under the new bill, but it will look a little bit different as EBB becomes the Affordable Connectivity Program, and the subsidy decreases to $30 per month. However, households at 200% of the poverty level (previously 135%) will be eligible, so more people can benefit. The new program also requires internet providers to be transparent and offer customers the plans that work for them, not just the most expensive types.
So, if you’re currently benefitting from EBB, you’ll be grandfathered into the new program and you’ll receive the $30 subsidy starting March 1, 2022. Plus, you can rest assured that the funding is secured for the next five years. If you’re between 135% and 200% of the federal poverty level, you’ll be eligible for the Affordable Connectivity Program when it begins on December 31, 2021. (Pro tip: You can still apply for the EBB program until December 30, 2021 at 5:00 p.m. EST if you’re eligible.)
Ultimately, the new infrastructure bill should make real progress toward closing the digital divide and making high-speed, reliable internet more available and affordable for all households in America. We’re thrilled that internet access is becoming more available and equitable — and that providers are shifting towards transparent pricing and plan selections. Here, we like to call that finding our customers the right connection.
If you’re ready to find a plan that works for you, check out our home internet options or get in touch with one of our Internet Experts at 866-383-3080.
Michelle Ricker is a Copywriter for EarthLink. She recently graduated from the University of Cincinnati with an M.A. in Communication and has more than 5 years of writing experience. She thrives on storytelling and well-placed punctuation. She currently lives and works in Atlanta.
See all posts from Michelle Ricker.