Elizabeth Warren Proposes A Public Option For The Internet

The White House contender wants to make sure every U.S. home has a fiber broadband connection at an affordable cost.
Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) has cast herself as both a progressive and a capitalist committed to making markets work for ordinary people.
Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) has cast herself as both a progressive and a capitalist committed to making markets work for ordinary people.
HuffPost/Damon Dahlen

Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) announced a plan Wednesday to create a public option for the internet, aiming to ensure universal broadband access.

Warren, who’s seeking the Democratic presidential nomination, unveiled the policy at the start of a four-day tour across Iowa as part of a broader package of reforms she calls her “plan to invest in rural America.”

To enact her plan, Warren hopes to first pass a federal law preventing state-level restrictions that have hampered municipalities that want to pursue a public internet system.

She would then create an $85-billion federal grant program to shoulder 90% of the costs for utility cooperatives, nonprofits, cities, counties and Native American tribes interested in laying the fiber needed to bring broadband ― contemporary high-speed internet ― to the mostly rural regions that do not currently have it.

The entities applying for the money ― for-profit utilities are notably ineligible ― would have to agree to serve as internet service providers for residents they serve, offering at least one high-speed plan and one plan affordable for low-income people.

“I will make sure every home in America has a fiber broadband connection at a price families can afford,” Warren writes in a Medium post introducing her rural investment plan. “That means publicly-owned and operated networks ― and no giant {internet service providers) running away with taxpayer dollars.”

About 6% of Americans, or 19 million people, lack access to broadband due to infrastructure deficiencies in their area, according to the Federal Communications Commission.

Those without it are disproportionately likely to live in rural areas, including Native American reservations, where creating the infrastructure is simply not profitable for private telecommunications companies.

About one-quarter of the population living in rural areas and one-third of the population living in Native American tribal lands lack broadband access, according to the FCC.

Warren also hopes major cities will take advantage of her plan, noting that even in urban areas where infrastructure is robust, the cost of high-speed internet keeps it out of reach for many low-income families.

At a time when progressive activists and experts are increasingly looking at ways to expand the role of the public sector to aid parts of society underserved or exploited by for-profit corporations, much of the attention remains trained on proposals to expand public health insurance and public universities.

Tennessee Example

The idea of a public option for the internet is not entirely new, however. In states that have not restricted the practice, a number of municipalities have already embarked on public internet experiments.

Chattanooga, Tennessee, has provided perhaps the best-known example. The publicly owned electric utility for the city of 180,000 used a grant from the 2009 federal stimulus package to help make its electric grid “smart” ― or automated. The city then realized that with a relatively simple upgrade, the fiber it laid for the new grid could become the source of hyper-fast broadband access. The new broadband system gives it internet speeds 50 times the U.S. average, making it a magnet for new tech startups.

Prior to Warren, few progressive politicians with major national profiles have carried the banner for the public internet option. Abdul El-Sayed, a progressive doctor who ran unsuccessfully for governor of Michigan in 2018, laid out perhaps the most thorough plan for a public internet option yet offered ― a state-level plan he dubbed “Mi-Fi.”

For Warren, the idea of a public option ― rather than a public takeover of a privately run system ― may be particularly appealing. She has emphasized her backing for social-democratic reforms like “Medicare for All,” which would replace private health insurance, alongside her conviction that robust markets, when properly regulated, have a vital role to play.

At least in terms of emphasis, the latter is a point of contrast with Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), a rival in the Democratic presidential race who identifies as a democratic socialist, rather than a capitalist, despite his own qualified support for private sector activity.

Other elements of Warren’s rural economic development plan echo themes she has already hammered on the campaign trail in various forms. She would appoint FCC commissioners committed to restoring net neutrality; empower the U.S. Postal Service to engage in low-cost banking services; leverage antitrust law to crackdown on agribusiness abuses of family farmers; and enact a Medicare for All program with reimbursement rates tailored to help rural hospitals survive and thrive.

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