Everybody loves infrastructure. It’s one of the few things Democrats and Republicans agree on these days. When Joe Biden came into office touting plans to spend more money than any president in history, Republicans wisely pushed back. Except when it came to “infrastructure.” Republican votes were key to putting Biden’s $1.2 trillion Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act over the top in Congress. The White House was so tickled with this support that it’s been calling the bill the “Bipartisan Infrastructure Law” ever since.

To be fair, the bill includes some arguably useful spending on, well, infrastructure: roads, ports, airports, that sort of thing. But it also includes a dog’s breakfast of longtime progressive priorities. For example, roughly 20 percent of the bill’s spending is earmarked for fuzzily defined “environmental justice” initiatives, some of which are simply handouts to left-wing activists. But one of the bill’s biggest priorities reflects the left’s three-decade obsession with the “digital divide.” Bill Clinton used to talk about how lack of access to the Internet might leave the disadvantaged in an informational backwater. The Telecommunications Act of 1996, which Clinton signed, allocated billions to upgrading Internet service for all.

Ten years later, the smartphone was invented. Within a few years, most Americans (yes, even most poor people) were online 24/7. But the activists still weren’t happy. Today, “digital equity” advocates aim higher: Now they’re concerned that not everyone has the kind of 100 Mbps (Megabits per second) broadband service that will allow multiple members of a household to simultaneously stream HDTV movies, play online video games, and manage a digital start-up out of a teenager’s bedroom. Oh, the humanity!

The Bipartisan Infrastructure Law aims to redress that injustice with a $65 billion investment in building broadband infrastructure for underserved communities. So does the bill create a laser-focused plan to lay fiber-optic cable as efficiently as possible? Of course not. A White House guidebook outlines seven major programs run by departments ranging from Commerce to Agriculture. When the Wall Street Journal recently examined these broadband subsidies, it found that they operate under wildly disparate rules and offer “wide differences in how much taxpayers are paying for each new connection.” For example, the broadband provider Blackfoot Communications is building two fiber networks in western Montana. One, funded by the FCC, will cost about $4,000 per connection. The other, managed by the USDA, is about five times more expensive, clocking in at roughly $19,000 per home or business passed.

And those Montana projects look cheap next to some other plans in the works. One proposal analyzed by the Journal aims to lay 235 miles of fiber-optic cable to connect 658 homes and businesses on a Nebraska tribal reservation “at an average cost of $53,000 for each household and workplace connected.” According to the trade journal Fierce Telecom, a project in coastal Alaska adds up to “a staggering cost of nearly $204,000 per passing.” These costs aren’t just due to poor oversight or price gouging. Typical broadband networks cost about $1,000 to $1,250 per customer connected, according to the newsletter Dgtl Infra. But those mostly serve urban or suburban areas. It simply costs more to reach remote communities or isolated homesteads.

Of course, any time the government is handing out billions of dollars, fraud can’t be far behind. For example, two decades ago, the FCC supervised a program aiming to wire remote villages in Hawaii. In 2006, an inquiry showed that one communications company was being paid $13,000 a year—per household!—to deliver basic landline phone service. But that wasn’t the crazy part. An IRS investigation later revealed that the company was also padding the books, billing for massages, private-school tuition for an executive’s children, and a $1.3 million private home. “The episode reveals stunningly scant oversight of the huge money flows,” economist Thomas W. Hazlett wrote in the Wall Street Journal.

Maybe that kind of fraud explains why the more than $200 billion spent on Internet infrastructure since 1996 hasn’t made a dent in the so-called digital divide. A 2011 FCC study estimated that 19 million people then lacked broadband service in the U.S. But in 2021, the White House claimed that “more than 30 million Americans live in areas where there is no broadband infrastructure that provides minimally acceptable speeds.” By this logic, the more the federal government spends, the more people fall behind in Internet access. So of course, Congress’s solution was to throw another $65 billion at the problem and add even more programs to what the Government Accountability Office calls a “fragmented and overlapping” federal broadband effort.

And here’s a bigger absurdity: The “digital divide” is mostly illusory, and subsidies are unnecessary. As Hazlett noted, “The vast majority of internet operations receive no subsidies yet offer fixed broadband access to 96% of U.S. households, according to FCC data, or 90% according to the administration’s.” Sure, some people live in remote areas without wired access, but those regions are now virtually all covered by 4G or 5G cell service that offers at least basic—and, increasingly, excellent—connectivity. Then of course, there’s Elon Musk’s Starlink satellite broadband service, not to mention other satellite-based providers. Starlink now has more than 5,000 tiny satellites in orbit, offering fast broadband service to remote users in virtually the entire U.S. Glenn Reynolds, the Instapundit founder, University of Tennessee law professor, and longtime tech geek, was a Starlink early adopter. He tells me the system is “great, reliable, and reasonably priced. I would totally recommend it to anyone who doesn’t already have multiple service providers.”

Why do progressives persist—after three decades, a quarter of a trillion dollars spent or committed, and little apparent progress—with this fiction that the government needs to subsidize broadband? I think it is part of the left’s obsession with equity. When you reframe every economic or regional disparity as a matter of “justice,” it’s easy to conclude that the government needs to step in and redress this seeming moral outrage. But it’s also about control. Progressives have never liked the freewheeling, quasi-libertarian nature of the Internet. That’s one reason the left keeps trying to impose “net neutrality” (which I discussed back in April 2021). In a barely noticed vote last November, the FCC’s three Democratic commissioners approved a White House plan that massively increases the agency’s power over Internet service providers. It could spell the end of the unfettered, free-speech-friendly Internet.

Brendan Carr, one of the FCC’s two Republican commissioners, writes that the new rules “give the federal government a roving mandate to micromanage nearly every aspect of how the Internet functions,” from technology choices to pricing. The new rules were never approved by Congress; the Democratic-controlled FCC simply enacted them through a bureaucratic sleight of hand. The policy also warns ISPs that they could be liable for other unspecified “actions and omissions.” It’s the regulatory equivalent of “Nice little ISP you got here…” If the government wants to crack down on “disinformation,” or seeks to keep certain personae non gratae off the Internet, these rules give it plenty of power to make ISPs knuckle under. In short, Carr says, the policy reads like something “drawn up in the faculty lounge of a university’s Soviet Studies Department.”

But everyone loves “infrastructure.” So Republicans fell for its siren song and gave Biden’s bureaucrats the keys to our nation’s most vital information channels.

Photo: AP Photo/Manuel Balce Ceneta, File

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