With the rise in telework, distance learning, and telehealth, the COVID-19 pandemic has shown a spotlight on the importance of broadband connectivity. In a move to promote broadband expansion in rural America, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce’s Technology Engagement Center (C_TEC) released nine policy principles to close the digital divide.

“The global pandemic has exacerbated the Digital Divide in America,” said Tom Quaadman, executive vice president of C_TEC. “Rural connectivity lags and many lower income families lack the necessary digital tools to connect.”

The principles, released today, are intended to help fund high-cost broadband, bridge the homework gap, expand telehealth, and reduce permitting barriers to expand connectivity.

The principles were developed in partnership with 90 private sector companies and industry groups representing wireless and wireline carriers, satellite providers, broadcasters, and technology companies.

The Chamber of Commerce breaks its policy principles into two categories: broadband funding and homework gap.

The broadband funding principles are:

  • “Technology Neutrality: Allow all technologies [and providers] to compete for funds to serve truly unserved areas, prohibit duplicative funding, and establish funding programs without existing Section 254 limitations, such as existing [eligible telecommunications carriers] requirements.
  • Collocation: Support collocation by enabling funds to be used for leasing tower space in addition to capital expenditures.
  • Speed to Market: In a COVID environment, speed matters and funding should be distributed to those who can stand up broadband network quickly.”

The homework gap principles are:

  • Funding Source: Fund out of general appropriations, not universal service contributions.
  • Program Design: A separate program from E-rate, but to the extent FCC finds useful it can borrow E-rate rules.
  • Targeted and Temporary: The program should last for only the duration of the national emergency and be targeted to low-income households without a home broadband connection or in jeopardy of losing their broadband connection, including related equipment and/or a computer (laptop, tablet, or desktop computer).
  • Technology Neutrality: Allow any technology. Eligibility: Limited to; 1) connectivity (wired or wireless), 2) service equipment (e.g. modems, routers, hotspots), and 3) devices (e.g. tablets/computers/smartphones).

In addition, the Chamber is also urging Congress to “address permitting relief that will encourage deployment.” In a statement, the organization said that current permitting hurdles are hindering broadband buildout and reform would provide increased certainty.

“It’s time for Congress to pass long-term broadband funding and permitting relief to sustainably bridge this divide while offering temporary, targeted, and timely solutions to address COVID-19 specific disparities,” Quaadman said. “If done correctly, this will improve education and health care opportunities for deserving communities while giving our slumping economy a much needed boost.”

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Kate Polit
Kate Polit
Kate Polit is MeriTalk SLG's Assistant Copy & Production Editor, covering Cybersecurity, Education, Homeland Security, Veterans Affairs