IE 11 is not supported. For an optimal experience visit our site on another browser.

Why conservatives are wrong to say broadband access isn't infrastructure spending

To be against Biden's spending money on broadband is to be against the rural residents conservatives claim to champion.
Photo illustration of harvester gathering corn crop in a field and the cultivated part of the land is in the shape of the wireless connectivity symbol.
There's a data drought in America's rural communities.Anjali Nair / MSNBC; Getty Images

"Broadband is infrastructure." That's what President Joe Biden's Twitter account posted Monday night. You might not have noticed, given that it's a perfectly anodyne statement — one that happens to be true.

And yet, Biden's tweet drew ire from the likes of Ben Shapiro. "The rule is that if you can stuff anything into the infrastructure box, then it counts as useful government spending. So everything is infrastructure now!" the Daily Caller editor emeritus wrote.

In framing Biden's proposal as overly broad and too expensive, Shapiro and other conservatives have been piling on to the notion that you can't call it an "infrastructure plan" if spending isn't solely on roads and bridges.

But high-speed internet is — and has been for a while now — considered a vital piece of infrastructure for our society. And in trying to dunk on Biden, conservatives like Shapiro are, in effect, trying to hurt efforts to finally close the gap between the urban elites and the rural areas they claim to champion.

It's been over 15 years since President George W. Bush first said America "needs a national goal for broadband technology, for the spread of broadband technology. We ought to have a universal, affordable access for broadband technology by the year 2007." Getting the entire country off dial-up internet was a goal throughout his second term. Barack Obama's two terms, too.

And while Shapiro may have forgotten, broadband was also a major part of President Donald Trump's unrealized infrastructure dreams. Back in 2019, Trump agreed to a $2 trillion infrastructure deal with congressional Democrats. Before that agreement crumbled, a major part of the plan was — as you may have guessed — broadband internet access for rural communities.

Then-White House press secretary Sarah Sanders even said in a statement that the meeting was a productive step toward improving American infrastructure, including "expanding broadband access for our great farmers and rural America."

But despite all these pledges and commitments, there's still a major digital gap between urban and rural areas. According to the Federal Communications Commission's 2020 Broadband Deployment Report, a little over three-quarters of America's rural population had access to the minimum broadband internet service level as of 2018. That was up from 60 percent in 2014 — but only around half of all rural residents had access to the sort of download speeds that would, say, let multiple at-home students stream on Zoom at the same time.

It hasn't been a hypothetical for thousands of families during the Covid-19 crisis. For example: Only half the public school students in Lee County, Kentucky, had access to broadband at home last summer, forcing them to rely on public connections. NPR spoke with a family of Idaho cattle ranchers in September whose four kids were all struggling to take part in their school lessons using the available satellite internet. "I soon found out that our internet speeds were so slow we had to spread it out all week long, actually," Mandi Boren told NPR. "We were doing schooling on Saturdays and Sundays, as well," before in-person classes began again, she added.

That's on top of the millions of people having to work remotely and conduct telemedicine appointments as many doctor's offices still aren't accepting in-person appointments. "The pandemic has finally shown that internet is infrastructure," Donna Iannone, a commissioner in rural Sullivan County, Pennsylvania, told The Philadelphia Inquirer in January. "It's as important as electricity or telephones. We'll have to wait and see if they finally treat it that way."

Even before the pandemic altered internet usage, the data desert was a major issue for rural residents. A Pew Research Center survey conducted in 2018 found that 58 percent of rural residents surveyed found access to high-speed internet to be a problem in their area — a quarter of them called it a "major problem in their area."

And, yes, a large part of the problem is a lack of infrastructure to deliver high-speed connections to these areas. It's not that it's impossible — but it is expensive, and many states block the local electric cooperative from getting into the ISP business.

Laying the groundwork for constant high speeds is way less cost-efficient the more spread out a user base is, and many companies haven't been willing to spend that cash. Plus, when access is available in a rural area, a little less than two-thirds of residents subscribe, many of them citing cost as a factor.

All of this to say that Shapiro and others like him are showing their disconnect from the struggles millions face in this country. Biden had it right — broadband is infrastructure. It's about time America gets everyone on the same internet.