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Two birds, one stone: Closing the digital divide and facing down Mark Zuckerberg

Congratulations are due to Congress and the Biden team for the passage of the landmark infrastructure bill. Now that we have that behind us, and the champagne flutes put away, it is time to probe where the execution might need additional help. After all, anything that makes it through a politically complex process is far from ideal — the outcome is a compromise that never solves the whole problem. Consider the $65 billion allocated for broadband internet that had rare bipartisan support and has one of the biggest gaps to close. My Digital Planet research team estimates that the true cost of connecting all Americans is closer to $240 billion — a whopping $175 billion shortfall.

Which Americans should be left out of the deal?

If our lawmakers are creative enough, perhaps no one. Here is how: Ask Mark Zuckerberg. His company, Meta, can get everyone on a fast ramp to the internet in three moves:

Rural America bears a disproportionate share of the burden of missing broadband access, since it is expensive for internet providers to lay infrastructure through outlying areas where the revenue sources are spaced farther apart. The costs of laying fiber-optic cable, the best way to deliver broadband service, are high — estimated to be $27,000 a mile, on average. This is where Zuckerberg’s team can help out. The company recently revealed a clever robot it developed, called Bombyx (after the Latin word for silkworm), that crawls along power lines, wrapping them with fiber cable. Power lines are everywhere across rural America. This avoids the single biggest cost of laying fiber-trenching, or digging holes to lay fiber under the ground. The solution can be rolled out across the U.S., courtesy Meta — on its dime.

While rural America lacks infrastructure, many urban households cannot use broadband, in large part because there is little competition among internet service providers and it is unaffordable. Three times as many urban households as rural households lack broadband subscriptions. In fact, major cities such as Detroit, Philadelphia and Cleveland have broadband access that is outright discriminatory. Back to Zuckerberg for a solution: His team devised a second innovation, Terragraph, which uses wireless technology to deliver broadband internet. This is ideal for urban areas and has been deployed in Anchorage, Alaska. This, too, lowers the cost of closing the broadband gap when deployed at scale — and Meta can be asked to do so. 

There is a third route to closing the budget gap, one that involves levying a tax. Nobel Laureate Paul Romer proposed a tax on the targeted ad revenues earned by the digital companies. I believe it is time to act on this idea. Facebook alone made $28.6 billion in the three months ending in June 2021 — a 56 percent increase over the same period the previous year. Even with no additional growth built in, a 19.5 percent tax on such revenues would be sufficient to cover all of the $175 billion shortfall in the infrastructure bill over the bill’s eight-year timeframe. But as the previous two points suggest, the shortfall will be much smaller because the costs of deploying broadband access itself can be lowered using Meta’s technologies.

Why would Mark Zuckerberg agree to any of this? Well, he may get a break from lawmakers down the road — this could be the start of a deal. After all, the history of antitrust action on tech companies, from IBM to Microsoft, suggests that a deal is eventually the likeliest outcome. The New York Times’s Farhad Manjoo spoke with several experts and, despite many good ideas, he arrived at the conclusion that “doing nothing” is the likeliest scenario in today’s environment, given the divided state of Congress. I would propose that we take a pragmatic approach: We should not let Meta and the Zuckerberg team off the hook; lawmakers can extract socially beneficial services and tax revenues from Meta while they still have the leverage. 

Also, Zuckerberg needs more people to populate his Metaverse, if and when that comes about. More people with high-speed internet should be an attractive idea for purely self-serving purposes. If you find that distasteful, think of how distasteful it is that large parts of this country have children who cannot attend remote school because their home internet cannot support Zoom, their parents cannot work on a job remotely or interview for one because the connections are jittery or non-existent, and they cannot see and talk to a doctor on a telehealth videoconference. 

Big Tech has caused social ills, but the social ills of a persistent digital divide are even worse.

Bhaskar Chakravorti is the dean of global business at Tufts University’s Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy. He is the founding executive director of Fletcher’s Institute for Business in the Global Context, where he established and chairs the Digital Planet research program.

Tags Broadband Facebook Internet access Mark Zuckerberg Meta National Broadband Plan

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