Broadband is the Infrastructure Challenge of the 21st Century
By Shirley Bloomfield and Jonathan Spalter
Editor’s note: The following Op-Ed was published on February 27 in The Hill.
Decades ago, small hometown businesses in our country’s heartland formed to solve what was then a leading infrastructure challenge facing rural America: the inability to communicate in a reliable way with the wider world. Fueled by an entrepreneurial spirit and commitment to their communities, these pioneers brought the telephone to rural America. With this infrastructure came new opportunities for business development and economic prosperity—outcomes possible only because of the reliable, sustainable communications at their fingertips.
Today, rural America continues to be fertile ground for innovation, but broadband has replaced the telephone, and equaled roads and bridges and airports as the infrastructure opportunity of the 21st century. As the broadband era commenced, broadband providers have leapt to the call once again, leading the way in building advanced networks that support cutting-edge technologies and the internet’s fastest speeds across large portions of rural America.
But for all their progress to date, the job of deploying this critical infrastructure is not done. It’s almost unthinkable to imagine life without internet access, yet millions of Americans continue to have limited or even no access to the broadband they need. And for those rural consumers and businesses fortunate enough to have broadband access, the challenge remains to keep services affordable and to upgrade networks over time to keep pace with what consumers in more populated areas enjoy.
The primary cause for this “digital divide” of availability and affordability is the steep cost of deploying and operating networks in rural America, especially in our hardest-to-serve areas where great distance and lack of density make it hard to justify and then sustain broadband investments.
The Trump administration has rightly recognized the importance of advanced communications networks, having included telecommunications in an initial list of critical infrastructure priorities. More than 100 members of Congress, both Democrats and Republicans, also recently joined in urging President Trump to include broadband within any broader infrastructure initiatives. As our policymakers gear up for action, here’s a simple roadmap for ensuring a brighter broadband future for all Americans:
Build on What Has Worked. Rather than reinventing the wheel, let’s put to better use initiatives and programs that have worked in the past to enable the availability and sustainability of rural broadband. Serious consideration should be given, for example, to leveraging the federal Universal Service Fund (USF) programs as part of any new broadband infrastructure initiative. These programs have been retargeted toward supporting broadband-capable networks where the market cannot sustain them, making them a ready-made platform for any new efforts.
But the USF programs remain woefully underfunded, making it harder for the reforms of recent years to achieve their intended effect of delivering robust, affordable broadband to more rural Americans. Leveraging of the existing USF programs could, if done right, provide the most effective path to ensuring greater broadband access at lower costs and also avoid problems of delay and duplication. Other options could include taking “lessons learned” from grant or capital infusion programs such as those created in several states to stimulate infrastructure investment, although these would require work to set up and would still need careful coordination with the USF programs.
Remove Regulatory Barriers. While the challenging business case for ongoing operations may be the greatest barriers to greater rural broadband deployment, regulatory burdens involving permits, pole attachments, franchising requirements, and rights-of-way can increase costs and cause lengthy delays that in some cases postpone promising projects for more than a year. Streamlining or eliminating regulations and addressing other deployment obstacles could help alleviate these burdens.
Our nation’s rural telecommunications innovators have made great progress in deploying broadband infrastructure across our country, and have contributed greatly to that success story in serving the most rural parts of the United States. But our work is not yet done. There still are many communities, companies and families left to be served. And for those consumers fortunate to already have access to broadband, more investment is required to sustain and upgrade their services. An infrastructure strategy that looks to build upon and learn from what has worked offers the most promise in tackling our remaining challenges.
Shirley Bloomfield is chief executive officer of NTCA–The Rural Broadband Association, which represents more than 800 community-based broadband providers in 46 states. Jonathan Spalter is president and chief executive officer of USTelecom, an association of broadband providers serving communities in every part of the United States.