We’re not going back to broadband circa 2019. Every aspect of life is going to have a significant virtual component from here on. That’s the lesson we’ve learned in 2020 about the use of broadband networks by people in their homes. Residential broadband access has become crucial to work and learn, to schedule and attend remote visits with a doctor, and to remain connected with family and friends—especially with multiple members of the household online at the same time.
In October 2019, the Benton Institute for Broadband & Society issued Broadband for America’s Future: A Vision for the 2020s. The agenda was comprehensive, constructed upon achievements in communities and insights from experts across the nation. The report outlined the key building blocks of broadband policy—deployment, competition, community anchor institutions, and digital equity (including affordability and adoption).
In the midst of the COVID-19 crisis, the General Assembly is considering Gov. Northam’s request to increase funding to bring better broadband to all Virginians. Such support is important, as students stay home and learn, adults stay home and work, and seniors stay home even as they visit their doctor. Funding for broadband would be an important step — and a wake-up call to the federal government. Virginia’s broadband challenges are multifaceted. In rural areas, nearly a third of households have no access to broadband.
We urge Congress to establish a broadband credit — call it America’s Broadband Credit — to ensure many more people can afford high-speed Internet access. Congress could set a household subsidy of $50 per month, which is roughly the cost of medium-tier broadband plans in urban settings (and it could provide a higher subsidy for tribal lands). That subsidy would allow anyone and any device in the household to be connected to the Internet, simultaneously, which is how so many families today are operating.
Broadband competition is more important than ever because – in these crises and beyond – America has fast-forwarded into its broadband future. But broadband competition is limited: At a typical broadband speed of 100/10 Mbps, at least 80% of Americans face either a monopoly (no choice) or a duopoly (only one choice) for fixed service. It’s worse in rural America, where monopoly is even more prevalent. The impact is obvious: higher prices, lower quality and/or slowed innovation limiting the ability of people to participate fully in society and the economy.
A quarter-century ago, the idea of “educational technology” popularized the notion that children would benefit if computers in schools and libraries were connected to the internet.
In the 2020s, public policy should recognize that bits are books, bits are blackboards, and bits are basic tools of medical practice. In other words, broadband networks that run to schools or libraries or health-care facilities are not built to carry only scholastic or literary or medical information.
Policymakers should help enable community anchor institutions to connect to their users wherever they are. Policymakers should recognize that the mission of community anchor institutions is to improve lives. Broadband is a key element in fulfilling that mission. Baltimore’s public school system has created a classroom in a community center to offer training in internet access. Librarians note that the provision of skills training is a natural fit with the historic missions of their institutions—offering a trusted space in which people of all ages can learn in the ways that best suit them.
Community anchor institutions should be at the center of any comprehensive national strategy to promote the availability and use of High-Performance Broadband. Community anchor institutions use broadband to provide essential services to their community, such as education, information access, and telehealth services. But in the 21st century, community anchors’ missions are moving beyond their walls. Libraries no longer deliver knowledge that is housed only within their buildings or the covers of hardbound books.
This week the Federal Communications Commission is expected to create the Rural Digital Opportunity Fund. As proposed, the Rural Digital Opportunity Fund will make available $20.4 billion to subsidize deployment of high-speed internet networks to rural areas that don’t have adequate service now.