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The $65 billion internet-infrastructure plan could be an ‘Eisenhower national highway system for the information age,’ but it has miles to go

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By Jon Swartz

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For more: How the pandemic exposed the need to expand broadband in the U.S. at prices families can afford

Some 14 million Americans live without any internet access, and 25 million live without faster broadband, hindering their access to education, job opportunities and health care, according to the FCC.

The $3.2 billion EBB program passed this year assisted families and households struggling to afford internet service during the COVID-19 pandemic. So far, more than 7.5 million people have activated broadband service with help from the program, according to Nathan Johnson, co-CEO of TruConnect, a self-described wireless lifeline provider.

“There was a misperception that this is about handouts and giveaways. But COVID made it clear that [broadband improvements] make the infrastructure of the U.S. economy work better,” Johnson told MarketWatch. “This impacts education, remote training, telehealth, working from home.”

The challenges of building a level playing field

Equally important, the $65 billion broadband plan could potentially reshape equal access to digital education resources, and create a level playing field for kids from diverse and disadvantaged backgrounds.

Perhaps the most important aspect of the bill requires low latency to underserved communities, Allen Drennan, principal of Lumicadem, a learning management system for ed-tech and video streaming, told MarketWatch. The term refers to the lag time for things like live-streaming and videoconferencing, where there should be a real-time delay of 5 seconds or less. Past efforts to fund rural internet have ignored low latency, a requirement for real-time, immersive communications necessary to extend distance learning, Drennan said.

Karen Lightman, executive director of Metro21: Smart Cities Institute, at Carnegie Mellon University, calls the multibillion-dollar plan a “a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity” that would unleash smart-city technology to radically reduce greenhouse-gas emissions. She told MarketWatch that 40% of emissions currently are caused by inefficient use of buildings’ heating and cooling.

Read: Why a key federal fund to expand fast internet in America is in jeopardy

In rural areas, Tina May, vice president of rural services at agricultural cooperative Land O’Lakes Inc., compares the broadband plan to the Rural Electrification Act of 1936, which brought electricity to every U.S. home. She expects the same this time with high-speed internet access.

Achieving the bill’s desired goals, however, is far from a slam dunk. Most of the money would be made available through grants to states, and implementing such an ambitious agenda across so many states in various stages of need is challenging, say broadband officials.

“We now need to move our focus from Congress to NTIA and the state and local level,” Gary Bolton, president of the Fiber Broadband Association, said in a statement. “Only 26 states currently have broadband offices, and other states have a designate, which is typically a multiagency broadband task force. And, while 40 states currently have broadband programs, these state broadband programs vary widely.”

The spending will only be effective if intertwined industries are in good shape, Spalding said, pointing to the necessity of a healthy manufacturing base.

“We don’t have a manufacturing base to take advantage of it,” Spalding cautioned. “Look at the supply-chain issues. [Hurricane] Katrina is an example of what happens when infrastructure is heavily damaged. We depend on these services for life.”

Finally, there is the matter of security. With high-speed internet access available to millions of more people soon, the likelihood for cyberattacks escalates. “It amplifies security risks because everyone has access to the [superfast digital] highway,” Bipul Sinha, CEO of cloud data-management company Rubrik Inc., told MarketWatch. “Data security is going to be a massive challenge.”

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