At the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, while network managers in Europe asked websites to slow traffic to prevent network overload, America’s private-sector driven digital infrastructure met the task of keeping Americans connected. Still, at least 14.5 million Americans continue to lack access to adequate high-speed broadband access, creating a Digital Divide that threatens to leave communities behind. According to a U.S. Chamber Technology Engagement Center poll, Americans overwhelmingly support building, maintaining, and innovating service for consumers through cooperation between private companies and governments. Clearly, government has a critical mandate and unique opportunity to work with industry and pass legislation that can bridge the divide, but not all policies are made equal. Here’s what policymakers should and shouldn’t do to effectively connect all Americans:
Solutions policymakers should adopt:
1. Invest in Unserved Areas. Congress and States should invest in the build out of connected networks in areas of the country that truly lack access to high-speed broadband, defined as 25 Mbps/3Mbps. Due to geographic and cost barriers, public-private partnerships are necessary to deploy broadband where access is nonexistent. Congress should base funding on mapping conducted by the Federal Communications Commission (“FCC”) under the Broadband DATA Act.
2. Improve Permitting: Many state and local permit offices are experiencing bottlenecks in permitting communications projects due to the pandemic. State and local governments should use American Rescue Plan funding to bolster staff and resources in permitting offices. Additionally, states should employ shot clocks that deem approval for broadband projects granted in appropriate circumstances.
3. Increase Adoption: While steps have been taken to address the urgent pandemic affordability needs like the FCC’s Emergency Broadband Benefit, the current long-term model for providing assistance to lower income Americans is outdated, and Congress should reform its current Lifeline program in order to provide more sustainable support. States should deploy funding for digital literacy programs to prepare future workers and connect Americans to essential services.
Ideas policymakers should avoid:
1. Moving the Digital Goalposts: Policymakers should focus on connecting the unserved and not on technology mandates. There are calls to require symmetric speed standards at a level outpacing the FCC’s definition of broadband in determining where funding should be deployed. Such an approach, if used to determine where service is available, would deem nearly 58% of the nation as “unserved” by adequate broadband.
Why It’s Bad: This hurts communities, particularly rural ones, that already completely lack access to broadband, because dollars for connectivity will be diverted to areas of the country in which they’re already is access at the current 25 Mbps/3Mbps standard and not fully from those that lack access outright.
2. Government Owned Networks: Policymakers should avoid establishing government owned networks (“GONS”), particularly in areas of the country that already have service. Polling shows that 70 percent of Americans agree that private-sector companies are the best to provide the fastest and most technologically advanced broadband networks.
Why It’s Bad: Governments can endlessly tax their residents to pay for broadband networks – even if the network is likely to fail. That means that taxpayers ultimately pay the costs of failure, and taxpayers that choose to subscribe to a private provider in such circumstances end up paying twice.
3. Rate and Public-Utility Regulation: Policymakers should avoid regulating broadband like a public utility. From 2015 to 2017, the FCC experimented with such regulation, and for the first time in history, outside of a recession, private-sector investment declined in broadband infrastructure. A smart and light-touch, 21st century approach to regulating the internet is crucial to bridging the digital divide.
Why It’s Bad: Treating broadband like a public utility will discourage investment, particularly in areas where costs are high to deploy. One aspect of a public-utility approach policymakers should particularly avoid is rate regulation. According to polling, 76 percent of Americans believe that consumers will be harmed by rate regulation.
The COVID-19 pandemic highlighted the importance of broadband in everyday life. Whether it’s connecting students virtually, searching for jobs, or starting a business, Americans depend on reliable connectivity to achieve success. Policymakers in Congress, the federal government, and states should work to bridge the Digital Divide in a way that provides maximum coverage, affordability, and quality. As noted by nearly 200 state and local chambers this week, only a private-sector led connected economy can enable all three.
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