Building Blocks for a National Broadband Agenda

Benton Institute for Broadband & Society

Wednesday, October 30, 2019

Digital Beat

Building Blocks for a National Broadband Agenda

Jon Sallet

Thank you to Broadband Communities Magazine, to Barbara DeGarmo, and to Jim Baller for the chance to appear today.

Thank you to everyone in the room, and to your colleagues across the country.  Over the course of the last year, we talked to about 200 people – community leaders, industry experts, academics, and policy analysts. Local legislators, county officials, librarians and people who run state education and research networks. Foundations working to improve local access to broadband in rural and urban America. Rural electric cooperatives and municipal electric utilities. Innovators in local broadband deployment in cities and in rural counties. We talked with people concerned about the deployment of broadband in Indian country. We talked to people promoting civic engagement in Detroit and Philadelphia.

And a lot more.

We learned about the importance of local leadership in building stronger broadband communities.

Our report proposes a national broadband agenda. But even more importantly, it demonstrates that leaders in communities and states and thought-leaders around the country know what to do to make the future of broadband for all come true.

Broadband for America’s Future: A Vision for the 2020sHundreds of communities across the country are working with private companies or proceeding themselves to offer wholesale or retail broadband services.

At least forty-four states have broadband offices, task forces, agencies, or state broadband plans in place.  These state efforts are vital.  

And we’ve learned about why broadband is important. Here’s a story that stands out.

We all know Deb Socia, now the CEO of the Enterprise Center in Chattanooga, Tennessee, whose work has been and continues to be an inspiration. One day we were talking and she recalled sitting in two different fast-food restaurants in two different American cities on two different Sunday afternoons.

Both times, she saw a man enter the restaurant, approach the manager, and, in her words, “beg to be allowed to apply for a job by submitting a paper application.”  Both times the men were turned down. “What does it mean,” Deb asked, "when you can’t flip a burger in America without internet access?”

It means that we in this room and our colleagues around the country need to continue working so that broadband reaches everyone.  

In the next decade, everyone in America should be able to use High-Performance Broadband.

To do that we need to recognize that there is more than one digital divide. There’s geography. In urban and rural areas and on tribal lands, millions of people in the U.S. have no access to robust broadband networks. We cannot let where we live determine our ability to connect.

There’s competition. By the FCC’s calculations, more than 35 percent of Americans live in areas where there is only one broadband provider offering download speeds of 100 Mbps. And millions more have only two providers from which to choose. We cannot let lack of choice harm consumers.

There are problems of affordability and adoption. For too many people, the cost of broadband is too high, and the digital skills needed to use broadband effectively are lacking. We cannot let lack of affordability or training deprive people of opportunity.

But I want to emphasize that these are different facets of the same problem. Whether it’s geography, competition, or affordability or training, the impact is the same: Fewer people using broadband.

Our goal is for people in America to be able to use robust, competitive fixed broadband, what we call High-Performance Broadband.

Broadband delivered over networks that are fit for the next decade and that will be able to deliver the broadband performance Americans need as demand changes and grows between now and 2030.

That’s why we need an integrated agenda that addresses all facets of the broadband problem.

There’s a natural question that arises. Given all of the challenges and priorities this nation faces, why do we need to pay attention to broadband right now?

Let me say it this way. Broadband alone will not solve all of our problems.

But we cannot solve our biggest problems without broadband.

Think about it. Agriculture, Climate Change, Education for people of all ages, Healthcare, Social Services. All activities where solutions will ride atop broadband networks.

And let’s not forget the economy. High-Performance Broadband is necessary to increase economic opportunity. For many Americans, lack of broadband access means having less opportunity than their parents did. Low-income people, we know, live in rural, urban, and suburban America. In fact, the poverty rate is higher in rural than in non-rural America. Women are more likely to be among the working poor than men. The poverty rate among Native Americans is above 25 percent.

This is not just a digital divide—this is another America. An America where finances are precarious—and disadvantaged by long-term tectonic economic trends. A place that is often isolated – especially in rural America. An America inhabited by people who rely, perhaps more than most, on community institutions. And places – urban and rural alike – where the local fast-food restaurant may offer the best choice for broadband. Think of it as McBroadband. (I’ve used it myself).

Our broadband proposals are not just about some people. Since 1980, income growth for the top one percent has grown faster than the economy as a whole, growth among the next 9 percent has remained just about the same as per capita GDP growth. That leaves the bottom 90 percent of workers who have seen their income trail behind per capita GDP growth significantly.

90% -- that’s not lower income – that’s workers across America.

Where challenges to using broadband have not been solved the result is obvious: People disconnected from continuing their education, gaining new job skills, finding employment, and participating fully in their communities. But academic research and on-the-ground experiences we review in our report find the connection between positive economic outcomes and broadband to be strong.

How does policy help us reach our broadband goal? Policymakers should use these four building blocks to create and further broadband policy.

  • Deployment of networks where adequate broadband does not exist;
  • Competition increases choices and spurs lower prices and better-quality service;
  • Affordability and Adoption for those who lack the means or the skills to use broadband; and
  • Community Anchor Institutions, such as schools and libraries, increasingly serve their users wherever those users are.

First, deployment. Policymakers should support deployment where the social return on broadband investment would be positive.

We don’t even know exactly how many Americans don’t have fixed broadband – and that’s a problem in and of itself. But we know that there are too many. In the millions and millions.

The federal government should focus on providing capital for the construction of future-proof networks, networks that can supply 100/100 Mbps service and can be upgraded. Where that can’t be achieved today, it should be the goal for tomorrow.

This is a realistic goal for the next decade. Think about the trajectory of policy and performance between now and the end of the next decade.

  • Michigan’s broadband roadmap calls for 1 Gbps symmetrical service to all residents and businesses by 2026. Minnesota’s broadband plan seeks universal access to 100/20 Mbps by 2026.  The state of Washington’s low-interest loan/grant program for local governments and Indian tribes requires that cable networks supply 100/20 Mbps. Fiber networks must provide 1 Gbps symmetrical service. In the 2018 CAF II auction, more than one-third of the accepted bids were to networks offering at least 100/20 Mbps.
  • According to one speed test in 2018, the average wireline download speed for consumers was 96.25 Mbps, with several states, including Massachusetts, New Jersey, Maryland, and Delaware, averaging download speeds of 115 Mbps or more. (The average upload speed was 32.88 Mbps).
  • The cable industry announced at the beginning of 2019 that “10G” field trials will begin in 2020. 10G is cable’s name for a service that will deliver a download speed of 10 Gbps, or 400 times as fast as the FCC’s current broadband speed benchmark.

FCC Broadband MapThe first priority of deployment funding is to build to areas that lack broadband. And, just as obviously, if a slower speed is all that can reach some areas, then we should find a way to support it until High-Performance Broadband can be deployed.

But policymakers also must examine places where internet-access performance is inadequate. Governments should support, as funds permit, the deployment of new networks in what we can call broadband blind spots.

Recently, I talked to a woman who lives in a rural area where she can only get 15/2 Mbps service. Under the requirements of the Department of Agriculture’s new ReConnect program, that’s too fast to get support because it’s above 10/1 Mbps.

According to the FCC data, which must be improved, there are over 10 million Americans who have access to speeds from 10/1 up to, but not including, 25/3. And another 16 million Americans who can get 25 but not 100 Mbps download speeds.

In other words, there are people who are not being seen by government. And who therefore may not be seen by doctors or employers or schools or libraries.

We need to eliminate broadband blind spots.

Let’s recognize that there’s a tendency to call the construction of new, competitive networks in a locality with an existing network “overbuilding,” as if it were an unnecessary thing, a useless piece of engineering. But what some call “overbuilding” should be called by a more familiar term: “Competition.” “Overbuilding” is an engineering concept. “Competition” is an economic concept that helps consumers because it shifts the focus from counting broadband networks to counting the dollars that consumers save when they have competitive choices.

And while we’re talking about competition, let’s think about state laws as well. Today, 19 states limit their municipalities from experimenting with broadband.

States are leaders in many areas of broadband and they should be commended for their work and their successes but these limits on municipalities should be repealed.

Local governments should be able to make decisions about what is in their own interest, thinking about fiscal and practical issues. We understand that not every strategy will work in every place.

But when faced with limited competition, it’s good to have a maverick – a new entrant that has different incentives (like member-owned rural electric cooperatives) that can provide better prices and quality to consumers and isn’t as likely to cooperate with the incumbents.

In other words, the search for solutions leads to new entrants ¾ rural electrical cooperatives, or public-private collaborations, and more.

It's not all about the last mile. Where governments fund the construction of middle-mile networks, like the federal funding that has been so successful in places like Maine and Michigan, access to those networks should be open to any broadband provider. That cuts the cost of additional deployment to homes and small businesses.

Of course, a network is valuable only when it’s used. But for many people, broadband is too expensive. And others lack the digital skills that allow them to use broadband-enabled technology effectively. We address both in discussing our third building block – affordability and adoption.

We encourage Congress to consider the creation of separate support for eligible low-income people to afford fixed-broadband connections, including those in need of special in-home services, such as healthcare.

Dr Colin Rhinesmith

Affordability is a real problem. Dr. Colin Rhinesmith, an assistant professor at Simmons University in Boston, for example, told us that almost everyone he spoke with while doing research in eight low-income communities across the country said they would be able to pay $10-$15/month for low-cost internet. However, anything more costly would force them to choose between broadband and necessities of life like rent or even food.

As a nation, we should work together to foster strategies to provide service plans that will help low-income people get on broadband.  

Digital skills are also necessary. Digital-inclusion plans have been established in places like Austin, Kansas City, Charlotte, Seattle, and Louisville.

Digital skills are important as well in rural America. Strategies to bring rural areas online should be coupled with adoption programs that reach individuals, including older people.

And it's time to bring back the Broadband Nutritional Label that the FCC adopted in 2015. That label required fixed-broadband providers to disclose prominently and simply to consumers all charges and fees, the typical performance that their network actually delivers (not just what is advertised), and any monthly usage limits.

Consumer knowledge boosts what consumer power exists.

Finally, we address the critical role of community anchor institutions, like schools, hospitals and libraries. Governments should support the ability of community institutions to get the broadband they need at competitive prices, to serve their users wherever the users are, and to act as launching pads for broadband deployment in their communities.

Libraries used to be places where digital access meant that people came to use a computer. Gina Millsap, the chief executive officer of the Topeka and Shawnee County Public Library in Kansas told us that 3,000 people a day enter the library, nearly all with one device, some with two or three. How much broadband does her library need? “It’s like water pressure,” she says. “How much water pressure can I get? I need it all!”

And community anchor institutions can extend their reach – to their users and to their communities. Libraries no longer deliver knowledge that is housed only within their buildings or the covers of hardbound books. Public education today cannot exist separate from the ability of students and teachers to use broadband connections—both in and out of school. And health-care facilities see and monitor patients both in hospitals and in their homes.

We recommend expansion of the E-Rate program to support wireless, off-premises connectivity to students.

Finally, networks that reach community institutions can also, with private funds, be extended to nearby neighborhoods.

Remember, no one builds a network that carries only educational data. Public policy should recognize that bits are books, bits are blackboards, and bits are basic tools of medical practice.

Together, these four building blocks form our proposed national broadband agenda. Over the course of the next year, we will keep listening and learning.

We’d love to hear from you. Tell us what you think of our report – you can send comments, ideas, and opinions to

We’ll be hosting blog articles on the Benton website, traveling to meet leaders in person, and exchanging ideas with other experts.

We’ve talked to local leaders who say that it's hard to get information; the issues are technical; the public-interest community doesn’t necessarily have the loudest voice; communities can be caught in political debate – even, as in Colorado, local referenda.

We hope our work helps leaders work through these issues. But Benton is not alone. The Pew Charitable Trusts has already released its invaluable State Broadband Policy Explorer and, led by Kathryn De Wit, will be issuing its own study of state broadband practices early next year. In the next few months, the National Digital Inclusion Alliance and Brookings will issue a report on the impact of broadband use on wellness, for individuals and communities. They have already released the Broadband Research Base, which collects reports, studies and journal articles that address the impact of broadband and digital inclusion on community and individual well-being. Chris Mitchell and Lisa Gonzalez of the Institute for Local Self-Reliance continue to publish the story of municipal broadband — as new chapters continue to be written. Scholars – too many to mention – will continue to share their insights.

We all should support and celebrate this growing body of work. And we should spread the word about what works.

One year from now, in October 2020, we’ll re-issue our recommendations – improved by what we learn over the next twelve months.

César Chávez said, “We cannot seek achievement for ourselves and forget about progress and prosperity for our community.”

When people come to the Broadband Communities conference, perhaps they think about the word “Broadband.”

But let’s emphasize what the other word is – “Community.” Imagine each community enabled to identify and build on its strengths and employ technology accordingly. That is a profoundly democratic vision.

Thank you.

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). 

[For more on Broadband for America's Future: A Vision for the 2020s, please sign up for updates]

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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