As SpaceX prepares to launch a beta of its Starlink satellite broadband service, the House Democrats have outlined an ambitious broadband plan that could collide with Starlink's mission to bring broadband to underserved areas.
The $100bn universal broadband plan, announced this week by House Majority Whip James E Clyburn, aims to deliver affordable high-speed fiber broadband infrastructure in unserved and underserved communities.
House Democrats hope to pass the Accessible, Affordable Internet for All Act to enable the fiber broadband network. However, the Act must pass a vote in Republican-controlled Congress to be realized.
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The largest component of the Act is $80bn to deploy fiber infrastructure nationwide, but it also includes $5bn for low-interest financing for broadband rollouts, and a $50-a-month discount for low-income households.
It would earmark $1bn in grants for states to close gaps in broadband adoption, $5bn to ensure students without internet at home can participate in remote classes, and ensure Wi-Fi is available on school buses.
"Over a year ago, I formed the House Rural Broadband Task Force with the goal of bringing affordable high-speed internet to 100% of Americans," said Whip Clyburn. "Since then, the disparity between those served and unserved has become clearer.
There are several other key elements to the proposal aimed at overhauling the US broadband market.
As noted by the Electronic Frontier Foundation, the bill would establish a minimum standard of 100 megabits per second (Mbps) download and upload speeds and deem areas with 25Mbps symmetrical speeds as "unserved". The current federal definition for broadband is 25Mbps download speed and 3Mbps upload speeds.
The bill would also tackle ISP-backed state laws that ban communities from building their own broadband access networks and emphasize open access networks.
And the Act would create a new Office of Internet Connectivity and Growth to coordinate federal infrastructure efforts with state governments.
As per Ars Technica, the Democrats plan dwarfs the Federal Communications Commission's (FCC) biggest project, the Rural Digital Opportunity Fund (RDOF), which allocates $20bn over 10 years to improving broadband in underserved areas.
The FCC in June approved Space X to bid for a slice of the $16bn available through the RDOF. SpaceX CEO Elon Musk is targeting 2021 for near global coverage and plans to launch 12,000 Starlink satellites.
Since May last year, it's been launching 60 satellites roughly each month and as of June it had a constellation of around 800 and it's applied to launch 30,000 more satellites in the future.
Musk has said Starlink would serve about 3% of US households with poor or no broadband at a price of around $80 a month. He's also claimed it will eventually be able to deliver gigabit speeds.
While a national broadband network might reduce the need for a Starlink-like service, SpaceX would have a big head start in the US given the political obstacles facing the Accessible, Affordable Internet for All Act and the time it would take to deploy such a large fiber network.
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But as the EFF's Ernesto Falcon argues, a nationwide fiber network would serve a bigger purpose over the long term, helping it match China's fast-moving universal fiber broadband program and laying the foundation for gigabit-speed broadband everywhere in the US.
"Without this law, the transition would take decades," writes Falcon. "This would ensure that the multi-gigabit innovations in applications and services can be created in the United States and also used by all Americans," he writes.
"A universal fiber program would also allow next-generation Wi-Fi and 5G to have national coverage as well as any future iterations of wireless technology. But perhaps most importantly of all, the issue of the digital divide would be solved in its entirety and properly relegated to the history books."
The bill was praised by Gigi Sohn, an FCC counselor during Obama's presidency and a distinguished fellow at Georgetown Law Institute for Technology & Policy.
"The 'Accessible, Affordable Internet for All Act' is the right legislation at the right time as the COVID-19 pandemic has laid bare the need for every American to have robust, high-speed broadband internet access at home," writes Sohn.
"This comprehensive bill addresses the twin problems of broadband affordability and lack of network infrastructure, recognizing that the digital divide is both an urban and a rural problem. And it would promote competition in the broadband market by preferencing open access networks and repealing anticompetitive state laws that prohibit communities from building their own broadband networks."
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