To close the broadband divide in both urban and rural America, the Federal government must focus on providing significant funding, ensuring accurate data, and work to ensure equity is baked into broadband expansion plans.
During a House Committee on Appropriations hearing today, telecommunications and civil rights experts shared their thoughts on what the Federal government, primarily Congress and the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), can do in the short term to close the broadband divide.
Lang Zimmerman, vice president of Yelcot Telephone Company, explained that expanding and sustaining rural broadband is “neither cheap nor easy.” While he recognized that there are finite resources available to fund broadband expansion, but said that “any plan that calls for broadband deployment … should match resources to the size of the problem to be solved.”
He argued that funding resources must be targeted to unserved areas to “limit overbuilding of existing networks that are meeting Federal broadband standards.” During the hearing, Zimmerman urged Congress to focus on funding new construction in the areas most lacking in broadband and then “seek to build the best kinds of networks in those areas.”
With an eye to the future, he said the approach he suggested will “ensure the best possible use of Federal resources” to both expand access to those in need and make sure that the networks being built will “last for decades.”
However, funding broadband expansion isn’t enough, if the Federal government wants to close the digital divide, Matt Dunne, founder and executive director of the Center on Rural Innovation, said the government needs to ensure that a trained workforce is in place. Dunne said that building out universal fiber broadband would require 250,000 new jobs and added that “doesn’t even count the number of jobs that wireless deployments, like 5G, would require on top of that.” While that may seem a daunting obstacle, Dunne argued that it’s actually a silver lining – expanding the broadband workforce would create well-compensated careers that would exist well beyond the initial period of infrastructure investment.
“This moment deserves a massive investment in apprenticeships and partnerships with tech schools and community colleges to ensure we’re building the workforce to realize the vision,” he said.
Amid the COVID-19 pandemic, which saw a radical shift to distance learning, telework, and telehealth, the Federal government has allowed for the FCC to increase temporary broadband discounts and subsidies to low-income households. Joi Olivia Chaney, senior vice president of Policy and Advocacy and executive director of the Washington Bureau at the National Urban League, said Congress should provide funding to make roll-out permanent programs.
“We need to fund a program that will provide long-term, sustainable support for the poorest Americans,” she said. She added that a permanent program needs to set minimum service standards that are re-evaluated and adjusted regularly to remain current with connectivity needs. While she acknowledged that Federal funding is needed in the beginning so “the neediest in our society won’t have to wait,” she said that “industry [needs] to put skin in the game.” She suggested a Digital Equity Fund which could serve as the repository of contributions, including from spectrum auction proceeds.
In addition to funding, witnesses agreed that Congress needs to ensure the FCC is providing “accurate and validated data.”
“It has long been documented that the Federal Communication Commission’s maps are bad,” Dunne bluntly said. “Most of the time, they overstate broadband coverage, but sometimes they also significantly understate coverage as well. Individual states with a fraction of the resources of the FCC have managed to get accurate data and … have demonstrated how absurdly wrong the FCC data is.”
He also explained that data is collected at the census-block level, which “allows coverage to be inflated and means more locations are considered covered than actually are.” Additionally, he said providers have “historically reported false data with impunity.” He asked Congress to create a penalty if providers send the FCC inaccurate information, as well as a mechanism to spot-check or verify that information.
While quite a bit of the hearing focused on rural broadband expansion, Chaney addressed the importance of urban expansion. Further, she argued that the approaches to rural and urban expansion cannot be the same.
“We also have to be careful not to fall into the old traps of aggressively solving for one community’s problem – a community that is racially diverse but predominantly white, while relying on hope and market principles to solve for another community’s problem – a community that is also racially diverse but disproportionately composed of people of color and those earning lower incomes. That would be neither equal nor equitable,” she said.
Tying back to the COVID-19 pandemic, Chaney remarked that “we apply the lessons learned from this crisis to build a more inclusive modern society.” To do so, Chaney said the United States must “make the overdue investments to achieve digital equity and inclusion, as a matter of civil rights, as a matter of human rights.”