Recognizing that a lack of affordable, high-speed internet access has hampered economic growth and fueled inequality, the Joe Biden administration’s recently released infrastructure plan calls for investing $100 billion in the nation’s digital infrastructure. This amount is in line with third-party estimates for building last-mile fiber connectivity to most homes and businesses, but reducing prices and increasing adoption requires a radically different model for the internet service provider (ISP) market. The Biden administration and its allies in Congress should adopt open access requirements as a precondition for any federal investments. Without a massive investment to build out the country’s open fiber infrastructure and a new set of rules to govern its use, the United States risks being left behind.
Investing in the public works project of nationwide last-mile fiber infrastructure—made available to private retail commercial access providers at reasonable and nondiscriminatory prices—will create jobs in both urban and rural areas and provide a clear, tangible benefit to millions of Americans. Last-mile fiber deployment can foster innovation far from Silicon Valley and the handful of other innovation hubs, allowing companies to make permanent shifts to remote work that began during the pandemic. Gigabit speed and symmetric internet access—providing upload speeds that are equivalent to downloads—can transform choppy Zoom calls into true “telepresence,” providing resolution in video display and augmented reality that can virtually eliminate distance in human interactions. From this perspective, fiber deployment can solidify the environmental gains achieved during the pandemic through lower rates of travel and commuting. Ensuring every home and business is attached to open fiber, across which providers can compete to sell services, would also make the United States more competitive globally. As Ernesto Falcon at the Electronic Frontier Foundation put it, “There is very little reason to expect the future Silicon Valley to be in the United States if we allow our telecom infrastructure to be bogged down by yesterday’s infrastructure.”
Like electricity, water, and sewer services, high-speed, fiber-based internet access lines should be considered a utility that needs to be connected to every home. Once constructed, this network should operate under an open access policy, overseen and enforced by the government, that allows any ISP to access the infrastructure at reasonable, nondiscriminatory prices to offer its services. This set of constraints will allow a competitive market for retail services to flourish. The Biden administration should also establish an Office of Internet Connectivity and Growth to issue a national strategy, track progress, and use all available funds and authorities toward this goal. The White House should also require federally funded highway projects to lay conduits for internet access service, develop a complete picture of existing fiber networks and the pricing for access to those networks, and fund independent efforts to monitor internet access speeds.
Background: Where the United States Stands on Fiber Deployment
Fiber-optic cables, bundles of clear glass or plastic strands, can carry data at the speed of light, outperforming legacy copper-wire cable or digital subscriber line (DSL) services many times over. Once fiber lines are deployed, they are described as future proof—while improvements in electronics will continue to allow more data to move over the same line, improvements to the physical cables themselves are minimal. Fiber lines deployed in the 1980s are still in use today.
A 2019 report [PDF] that compares U.S. fiber deployment to other countries found that 70 percent of households in China have fiber access. China’s fiber reach is all the more remarkable because, as recently as 2013, China lagged the United States significantly with fiber service, providing to only 17 percent of premises. Bulgaria, Japan, Luxembourg, Portugal, and the United Arab Emirates are all at or approaching access for 100 percent of households. Compared to countries with similar levels of population density, the United States has the second-worst coverage at 30 percent, leading only Ecuador (18 percent) and trailing Mexico (37 percent), Belarus (60 percent), Sweden (90 percent), and Lithuania and Latvia (100 percent). Of the thirty-seven Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) countries, the United States ranks twenty-eighth in terms of the percentage of its home internet access connections that are fiber (rather than cable or DSL).
Countries that have rapidly built out fiber networks have all done so as part of a national strategic initiative. Most either regulate service and prices directly or have adopted an open access policy that forces network owners to allow other ISPs to use the fiber to encourage competition. The premise of this policy is that where government funding is used to build the network, the owner and operator of the network do not get to claim a monopoly on its use. In contrast, in the United States, this sector is entirely deregulated. Existing incumbent providers have few or no incentives stemming from either oversight or competition to upgrade their services to fiber, and they often operate as monopoly providers able to charge whatever the market will bear. Additional competition is blocked by the bureaucratic hurdles of laying additional cables and, in metro areas, a number of barriers to entry that have been erected by local cable monopolies.
Lack of regulation has led to natural monopolies in both urban and rural areas, resulting in poor service and high prices. Nearly eighty million Americans effectively have no choice [PDF] in their ISP. Where higher speeds are available, affordability also looms large as an issue. According to Federal Communications Commission (FCC) data, although 95 percent of Americans have access to at least one internet access provider that meets the FCC’s minimum standards of twenty-five megabits per second (Mbps) download and three megabits per second upload, 35 percent, some 114 million people, do not subscribe to in-home service at all, with cost most often cited as the reason. The FCC relies on reports from ISPs, and its data has been sharply criticized. Private sector data suggests that more than 157 million people in the United States do not use high-speed internet access services--again, cost is usually the reason. Adoption of in-home high-speed internet access is tightly correlated with socioeconomic status.
One small bright spot is municipal high-speed internet access, which has successfully brought gigabit speeds to consumers at far lower costs than commercial internet access. Chattanooga, Tennessee, has been the poster child for small cities in this regard with the fiber service offered by its Electric Power Board. Other cities that have successfully developed municipal high-speed internet access include Bristol, Virginia, and Lafayette, Louisiana. Nonetheless, lobbyists from the telecommunications industry have stymied additional internet access initiatives by pushing laws in twenty-two states to block municipalities from entering the ISP market.
While 62 percent of Americans recently surveyed [PDF] voiced support for breaking up telecommunications providers, dividing larger companies into smaller ones will not create competition. Smaller companies will simply maintain monopoly status in their smaller service areas because a single provider will continue to own and control the wires within their territory. Investment by the federal government that perpetuates this broken model will not result in a competitive market in which consumers can choose among providers based on speed, price, and service. Instead, policy is needed to open up competition on those lines.
While rare in the United States, open access networks have been used to create competition among multiple ISPs to offer the best combination of performance and price using the same fiber network. For example, in the case of Utopia Fiber in Utah, customers pay a $30 connection fee to Utopia Fiber and then select from thirteen different ISPs that offer plans that range from $35 per month for 250 Mbps to over $200 for plans that offer up to ten gigabits per second (Gbps). Some open access networks operate on a three-tier model in which a municipality installs the fiber-optic cables and maintains ownership, contracting with a private network operator to run the network and providing access to retail ISPs to service consumers and businesses. The Institute for Local Self-Reliance has identified thirty last-mile open access networks operating in the United States today.
Open access also has the benefit of resolving long-standing issues about net neutrality. With one service provider owning the only high-speed infrastructure, that service provider is in a position to reduce speeds for video, introduce data caps, or prioritize its own content over competitors. Regulating this activity has proved difficult. Open access largely addresses this problem by creating markets in which companies compete for consumers and in which switching between them is relatively easy. Thus, data caps or content blocks could no longer be imposed by incumbent providers without inviting competition that today is unimaginable.
The Challenge: Incentivizing Investment and Creating Competition
The Biden administration has seized on the importance of building out fiber infrastructure with its $100 billion proposed spending plan. This amount is five times what the Biden campaign proposed to spend and exceeds the $70 billion estimate that the Fiber Broadband Association developed for reaching 90 percent of households with fiber internet by 2025. The amount is also in line with the $94 billion included in the Accessible, Affordable Internet for All Act [PDF], reintroduced this spring by Representative James Clyburn (D-SC) and Senator Amy Klobuchar (D-MN).
The legislation and the Biden administration’s proposal largely parallel each other. Like the Biden plan, the act encourages the creation of open access networks but does not require them. In the last thirty years, Congress and the president have approved legislation to create open access policies for similar categories of infrastructure twice. In 1992, Congress passed the Energy Policy Act [PDF], giving the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) the authority to require electric utilities to open their transmission systems to third-party power companies. This act is what allows consumers today to choose to buy wind energy and have it delivered over the power lines of their local utility. Similarly, the Telecommunications Act of 1996 mandated an open access policy for copper wire phone lines, requiring the regional “baby bells” to allow competitive local exchange carriers to offer local and long-distance services. In both instances, these acts received bipartisan support, with Republicans favoring setting market conditions that allowed for competition rather than price-setting by regulators in natural monopolies.
During the last round of stimulus investment, the Broadband Technology Opportunity Program (BTOP), invested $4 billion in the development of middle-mile fiber networks to connect local ISPs to the major networks. BTOP included an open access policy [PDF], which required [PDF] network owners to allow other ISPs that provide last-mile connections to connect to the BTOP-funded middle network. This ensured that rules and rates for connecting were fair, open, and transparent. A similar approach is needed now for last-mile connectivity.
With Democratic control of the House, Senate, and White House and widespread support for an infrastructure bill, the United States has a narrow opportunity to catch up to the rest of the world on last-mile fiber deployment. Assuming that the Accessible, Affordable Internet for All Act will be the basis for any legislation included in the infrastructure bill, the act should be revised with open access infrastructure (including open conduit and dark fiber that are subject to government oversight) as its central tenet. Investment in fiber could get left on the cutting room floor, so the Biden administration should lay the groundwork now for rapidly deploying the necessary infrastructure when politically feasible and work to create public pressure in favor of fiber deployment and open access. Many of the foundational efforts within the Accessible, Affordable Internet Act can be taken through executive orders, particularly when the lack of fiber infrastructure is rightly understood as a national security challenge.
The Accessible, Affordable Internet Act should be revised to make open access its central tenet. Instead of giving preference to open access projects for funding, as with the BTOP program, open access should be made a requirement for funding. While cooperatives and municipalities could choose to become infrastructure providers, a competitive market of for-profit providers that are incentivized to provide the best service over this infrastructure will serve the American people better than expanded closed access networks.
The president should establish an Office of Internet Connectivity and Growth to issue a national strategy, track progress, and use all available funds and authorities. The Accessible, Affordable Internet Act proposes the creation of the Office of Internet Connectivity and Growth within the Department of Commerce’s National Telecommunications and Information Agency to coordinate federal spending and policy to promote the expansion of broadband technology. The secretary of commerce should establish this office and issue a national strategy with the goal of achieving 90 percent last-mile fiber availability and 50 percent of households using fiber within four years.
The secretary of transportation should set a “dig once” mandate for federally funded highway projects. The Accessible, Affordable, Internet Act includes a “dig once” provision that would require federally funded highway projects to lay conduits for fiber internet service along the right of way. The Department of Transportation has the authority to issue such a mandate without further action by Congress and should do so early during the Biden administration.
Use Commerce Department authorities to develop a complete picture of existing fiber networks. No database or map of existing fiber networks in the United States exists. Such data is necessary for policymakers to make prudent investments. Using authorities under Section 705 of the Defense Production Act, the president should direct the secretary of commerce to carry out a study and compel the owners of fiber infrastructure to furnish the necessary information to gain an accurate and complete picture of the current fiber build-out.
Fund independent efforts to monitor internet speed and quality. Official data on internet speeds is self-reported to the FCC by carriers on Form 477. Data is released almost a year after it is collected and is not validated [PDF] for accuracy. The Commerce Department should end this reliance on self-reported data and utilize a proxy service to provide independent, real-time measures of internet service quality.
The COVID-19 pandemic has made clear that if internet service was not a necessary utility in a prior era, it is today. If Congress fails to act, the nation as a whole is at risk of being left behind in the digital age.
This Cyber Brief is part of the Digital and Cyberspace Policy program. The Council on Foreign Relations takes no institutional positions on policy issues and has no affiliation with the U.S. government. All views expressed in its publications and on its website are the sole responsibility of the author or authors.