Billions to Connect Everyone to High-Speed Internet Could Still Fall Short

Along the southeastern edge of Oklahoma, where expansive cattle ranches and empty storefronts dot the landscape, the lack of high-speed internet service has become a daily frustration for residents.

Wanda Finley, a fourth-grade teacher in Sawyer, Okla., said the satellite service at her home was often too slow to use, and it sometimes went out for days. She cannot schedule medical appointments, request prescription refills or pay her bills online until she gets to work. Nearly every weekend, she drives about 40 minutes to school to prepare her weekly lesson plan because it can take minutes for a single web page to load at home.

I’m hoping it will change,” Ms. Finley, 60, said sitting in her home on a recent afternoon.

If President Biden gets his way, Ms. Finley and her neighbors will benefit from a $42.5 billion program to expand fast internet access across the country. The funding, which was included in the 2021 infrastructure law, is part of an initiative that has high ambitions: to provide “affordable, reliable high-speed internet” access for every home and business by 2030.

The effort is meant to close the “digital divide” by ensuring that all Americans can connect to fast internet, given the critical role it plays in economic opportunities, education, health care and other areas. The Biden administration has also invested more than $22 billion in other programs to build broadband networks and reduce the cost of internet bills.

“It’s not as simple as giving money to a major internet service provider and saying, ‘Go build there,’” Mr. Osborn said.

Evan Feinman, the director of the National Telecommunications and Information Administration’s $42.5 billion program, said officials were confident the federal and state funds would be enough to cover every unserved and underserved location, meaning every American would have access to an internet speed of at least 100 megabits per second for downloads and 20 megabits for uploads.

Still, he said some projects could take as much as five years to complete and he anticipated construction would not start until late 2024. Although he said most locations would receive fiber connections, he expected others would be covered by fixed wireless or satellite technology.

Satellite is not considered reliable under the program rules, but Mr. Feinman said some services were better than others, and states could use funds for satellite equipment and service for a handful of remote locations. Starlink, a satellite technology made by Elon Musk’s SpaceX, is considered to be more reliable, but the hardware costs hundreds of dollars and it can take months to get off wait lists.

The funding’s reach will matter for Americans who have long lacked high-speed internet access. Ms. Finley said that she wanted to assign homework that involved more online research, because it would accelerate her fourth-grade students’ learning. But many could not complete it. Only three of the 20 students in her homeroom have sufficient internet access at home. The rest do not have service or can only use their parents’ cellphones.

A few miles away in Fort Towson, Okla., which has about 600 residents, Mayor Tami Barnes said people complained constantly about internet speeds, which she called a “huge damper” on the local economy. On a recent afternoon, the busiest part of town was the parking lot of a convenience store and gas station. The other two main businesses are a steakhouse and Dollar General store.

Although internet bills are a financial burden for many families, Ms. Barnes said more residents would probably attend medical appointments online if they had high-speed access, because many often travel up to three hours to see specialized doctors.

Other states with low population densities, such as Montana, could also face more challenges. In Broadwater County, Mont., where many homes are separated by vast stretches of grassy land and some are tucked in mountainous areas, residents said the lack of fast service made it difficult to do things like work from home.

Denise Thompson, 58, who operates a cattle ranch with her husband in Townsend, Mont., said she wanted to start a website to ship more beef products, but she was unsure how she could operate it at home because she relied on her phone’s hot spot for internet access and her connection was slow. She has not tried streaming a movie in about a year because it is usually stuck buffering for minutes.

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