The White House announced Wednesday that its "once-in-a-generation investment in our infrastructure" would include a part dedicated to improving Americans' access to the internet.
Later, the Senate passed a critical test vote by 67-32, suggesting possible passage of the entire infrastructure bill in the coming days.
"This bipartisan deal is the most important investment in public transit in American history and the most important investment in rail since the creation of Amtrak 50 years ago," President Joe Biden said in a statement Wednesday afternoon. "It will deliver high speed internet to every American."
Neither precise details of the broadband section nor the text of the whole bill has been released yet. The White House said in a related statement that a $65 billion investment for broadband, out of $550 billion in new spending, would ensure that "every American has access to reliable high-speed internet," comparing it to the electrification of the country a century ago.
The National Telecommunications and Information Administration, part of the Commerce Department, published a comprehensive interactive online map last month. The document shows how poorer, more rural and tribal areas generally don't have affordable broadband access.
The Federal Communications Commission defines broadband as a download speed of 25 megabits per second and an upload speed of 3 Mbps. While 25 Mbps is generally sufficient for most uses, when such a connection is shared via a wireless connection and transmitted to multiple people using different devices, real-world speeds — particularly when videoconferencing is involved — are often slower and insufficient.
A draft copy of the 68-page broadband section of the infrastructure bill obtained by NBC News would establish a de facto minimum standard of 100 Mbps down and 20 Mbps up, and it would require that internet service providers have an eye toward even higher speeds, most likely through fiber optic service. In addition, it would require the federal government to establish a single website where consumers could determine whether they are eligible for low-cost broadband.
"The main takeaway for me is that it's oriented around future-proofing infrastructure, and that's a good thing," said Ernesto Falcon, a lawyer with the Electronic Frontier Foundation in San Francisco.
Vinhcent Le, a technology equity lawyer with the Greenlining Institute, an advocacy organization in Oakland, California, was part of a coalition of pro-consumer groups that lobbied the bipartisan working group in recent months.
"It doesn't rock the boat too much, but it does give things that advocates have been asking for: better mapping data and digital inclusion money, helping pay down the cost of broadband," he said. "It's going to help people get signed up."
Most major ISPs have low-cost programs, but critics have said that they aren't always widely known and that the speed floor has historically been too low.
In February, Comcast doubled the speed of its low-cost program, known as Internet Essentials, from 25 Mbps to 50 Mbps. Comcast, the country's largest internet service provider, owns NBCUniversal, the parent company of NBC News.
"We've always offered the same super fast speeds across an entire city when we build out and offer gig speeds across nearly our entire footprint of 55 million plus homes," Sena Fitzmaurice, a Comcast spokesperson, said by email. Fitzmaurice declined to comment on the White House announcement until legislative language has been released.
"We've been part of a coalition which has called for a permanent broadband program to help low-income households, and have been participating in the emergency program including allowing customers to use it to access any tier of broadband service," she said.
The White House is also pushing to pass the Digital Equity Act, a bill to create "a permanent program to help more low-income households access the internet."
NCTA, the lobbying organization for telecommunications companies, said it was generally in favor of the deal.
"Connecting every American to robust and reliable broadband infrastructure is a goal we share and our industry has spent decades building and upgrading networks that now reach 80% of U.S. homes with superfast gigabit speeds," Brian Dietz, a spokesperson for NCTA, said by email.
"While we still need to see the details of the bill, we are encouraged that the bipartisan infrastructure deal directly addresses two critical elements of reaching universal connectivity — dedicating funding first and foremost to those regions without any broadband service, and providing financial assistance to help low-income Americans subscribe to this critical service," Dietz said.