America’s Broadband Moment

Benton Institute for Broadband & Society

Tuesday, April 21, 2020

Digital Beat

America’s Broadband Moment

Jon Sallet

The debate on whether broadband is a luxury or an essential connection to society is over. More than twice as many people are now using residential broadband during business hours as before the COVID-19 crisis. Over 55 million students have been impacted by school closures. The use of telehealth has skyrocketed.

This, I believe, is our broadband moment: a hinge of history that will determine whether today’s residential broadband is fit for the changed world in which we inhabit or whether its limits work to disadvantage those that are not equipped to use it.

For the good of all, each of us has been asked to stay at home as much as possible. Broadband makes that bearable, connecting us to entertainment, to family, to friends. Broadband also makes it possible for us, if we are lucky, to continue to work and to learn. Most importantly, it connects us to health services and vital information so we can stay safe in what feels like a very dangerous time.

But what about the millions of Americans for whom broadband does not reach?

And what about those for whom broadband may not be affordable like newly-unemployed workers, low-income students, and at-risk seniors?

And, of course, as we emerge into a changed world, what about our ability to re-start the economy and reduce unemployment without setting off yet another epidemic?

We are facing a digital chasm that will emerge if we do not act and the cluster of digital divides gets larger, longer-lasting, and harder to close. The challenges are diverse – from connecting rural homes to providing affordable service for low-income families, from people (of any age) seeking to gain skills to enter the workforce to patients relying on telehealth, to students receiving online instruction.

This is the time to invest in, plan for, and engineer High-Performance Broadband for every person in America.

Three enduring principles should guide us:

  1. Everyone in America should be able to use High-Performance Broadband by the end of the decade.
  2. To do that requires a multifaceted and comprehensive broadband agenda.
  3. State and local leadership are critical.

As Congress considers how best to recover from the COVID-19 pandemic and jumpstart our economy, the multifaceted broadband agenda must address, I believe, four key areas: deployment, competition, affordability & adoption, and community anchor institutions. (I hit the highlights here. More detail will follow in subsequent articles.)

To encourage broadband deployment that finally reaches everyone, Congress should:

  • Fund the buildout of High-Performance Broadband (think 100/100 Mbps networks fit for the future) to all of America. Estimates are that this will cost $60-$100 billion.
  • Enlist the U.S. Department of Agriculture to help rural areas that lack broadband service today to formulate their own broadband plans.

To ensure communities reap the benefits of competition, Congress should:

  • Encourage new, competitive entrants, for example, rural electric cooperatives and broadband providers accessing open-access middle-mile networks. Institute public-policy that empowers competition in multi-tenant facilities.
  • Pre-empt states laws that hinder the ability of municipalities to experiment with their own broadband solutions.

Broadband networks become more valuable as more people use them, as the recent health crisis proves. To make broadband service affordable and encourage adoption, Congress should:

  • For the first time, establish a targeted subsidy for fixed-broadband subscriptions, aimed at connecting low-income households and the newly-unemployed.
  • Fund job-related, digital skills training, with emphasis on middle-skills jobs and other jobs that will be key to our recovery.

Finally, our community anchor institutions play a special role in ensuring everyone has access to broadband. Recognizing this, Congress should:

  • Facilitate, at separate expense, buildout of broadband networks linked to community anchor institutions networks.
  • Permit community anchor institutions to use their spare broadband capacity for communities.

The sooner we start to build a comprehensive broadband agenda the sooner we will reap the benefits of building broadband networks.

Because, after this crisis, life will be changed. Already, 74% of businesses plan to permanently shift to more remote work post-COVID-19. We must make sure we all can make that, and similar shifts, as well.

Let us be up to our moment, our broadband moment.

Jonathan Sallet is a Benton Senior Fellow. He works to promote broadband access and deployment, to advance competition, including through antitrust, and to preserve and protect internet openness. He is the former-Federal Communications Commission General Counsel (2013-2016), and Deputy Assistant Attorney General for Litigation, Antitrust Division, US Department of Justice (2016-2017). ​

The Benton Institute for Broadband & Society is a non-profit organization dedicated to ensuring that all people in the U.S. have access to competitive, High-Performance Broadband regardless of where they live or who they are. We believe communication policy - rooted in the values of access, equity, and diversity - has the power to deliver new opportunities and strengthen communities.

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