Community-Led Broadband Agendas and Issues to Watch in the Next Administration

On December 5, 2016, the Benton Foundation published The Next Generation Network Connectivity Handbook: A Guide for Community Leaders Seeking Affordable, Abundant Bandwidth, a handbook for city officials seeking the affordable, abundant bandwidth their communities will need to thrive in the decades ahead. The report was written by 1) Blair Levin, the Executive Director of Gig.U and a Non-resident Senior Fellow of the Metropolitan Policy Project of the Brookings Institute. From 2009-2010, Mr. Levin oversaw the development of the FCC’s National Broadband Plan; and 2) Denise Linn, a Program Analyst for the Smart Chicago Collaborative and a recent graduate of the Harvard Kennedy School. Below is an excerpt from the report that looks at the issues facing the Trump Administration.

Although Donald Trump will be our next President, we are not sure who will occupy key positions in broadband policy. We can, however, know what some of the agendas and issues will be and their potential direction. As discussed below, several can impact the economics and options related to network deployments.

Municipal Broadband

The Federal Communications Commission lost its effort to pre-empt state laws restricting municipal broadband efforts. The FCC declined to appeal the case to the Supreme Court. So the FCC’s ability to legally undercut such laws is likely to remain limited. We note that a number of efforts have proceeded in states with such laws, and as more communities obtain next generation broadband through their own efforts, and as such broadband becomes more important from an economic development perspective, the ability for incumbents to convince legislatures to pass such laws will likely weaken.

An Access Agenda

As we look back at the history of communications networks, the deployment of networks capable of offering faster, better, and cheaper services always requires a new capital allocation decision. This is generally done by a private-sector party, but often follows government decisions that lower the cost of deployment or operations and/or increase potential revenue and competition. The 1978 Pole Attachment Act, for example, sparked an investment wave into cable systems by allowing cable to attach to utility poles. More recently, the fiber network deployments and upgrades by Google, AT&T, and CenturyLink were stimulated by a variety of agreements between cities and the providers, as discussed in this Handbook, that improve the economics of the investments.

A continuing challenge, however, lies in assuring access to essential facilities. There are three basic categories: government-controlled inputs, such as spectrum at the federal level and rights-of-way at the local level; quasi-public essential facilities, such as utility poles and certain kinds of intellectual property developed through standards-setting bodies; and private assets that have become essential. Examples of these include the cable programming regulated under the 1992 Cable Act, the unbundled network elements at the heart of the Telecommunications Act of 1996, and the business data services facilities currently being debated by the Federal Communications Commission.

This is not a simple task. Nonetheless, Congress specifically told the FCC that it was responsible for the deployment of advanced communications networks and that it should “take immediate action to accelerate deployment of such capability by removing barriers to infrastructure investment.” In other words, if the FCC thinks such deployment is too slow—and the current commission clearly believes it is—it ought to inquire whether there are barriers that ought to be removed.

As competitors try to deploy next generation networks, they have pointed to two places where they see significant barriers: utility poles and entry to multiple-dwelling units (MDUs).

As to poles, there is some existing federal regulation and, as discussed on page 39, new efforts by cities to lower the cost of pole access. Depending on the outcome of those local efforts, but particularly if the courts determine jurisdiction for regulation lies at the state and federal level, we could see the federal government ask why the current rules often require multiple construction crews to do what one crew could do. Just as both national and local governments are wisely adopting “dig once” policies for deploying below streets, we would expect the FCC and some states to explore a similar vision of “climb once” or “one touch” policies.

With MDUs, the law already bans exclusive access agreements, but there are still many MDUs where, as a practical matter, the residents cannot exercise free choice. We might expect the FCC to consider whether the failure to provide residents choice creates a barrier to broadband deployment, in violation of Congress’ mandate. This would affect how cities approach their own plans, as cities often have a high percentage of their residents living in MDUs.

An Infrastructure Agenda

One of the few areas of agreement between the Democratic candidate, Hillary Clinton, and the President-elect, Donald Trump, is that both agreed there was a need for the country to spend more on infrastructure. While Trump has not yet laid out his technology-related agenda, cities making plans for upgrading their networks should pay close attention to policy debates in the first part of 2017 to determine if there are new resources to be utilized in upgrading networks for these future needs.

A Digital Inclusion Agenda

The FCC recently reformed its Lifeline program, which provides support for low-income individuals to stay on critical information networks. But this was not just about helping low-income people. It helps everyone. As a group of 44 mayors and city officials wrote in support of the reforms, “Getting more low-income households online will help modernize delivery of public services—facilitating more responsive and effective governance while lowering overheads for local government.” The same would be true for federal government. A high-tech CEO group estimated the savings of transitioning the federal government to a more efficient digital platform to be $1 trillion over ten years. In short, many in government understand moving to the digital platform can save billions but that movement requires all to be on that digital platform. As an initial policy question, the government will have to consider whether the Lifeline reforms are sufficient to make complete the transition to digital delivery of public services.

But this is not just a function of traditional government services. When the mass market Internet emerged 20 years ago, many hoped it would lead to increased social equity. It was not irrational for us to believe that a medium in which the cost of distribution is zero could lead to a world in which the best products become available to all. After all, the Silicon Valley billionaire and any impoverished child with Internet access probably use the same search engine and same apps. As Wired magazine noted, refugees fleeing Syria often have the same smartphone as those in the 1 percent.

But we would have to be blind to believe social equity has improved in the last 20 years. As others have noted, venture capital has largely focused on addressing the pain points of the most well off, not the least well off. Further, as the White House has noted, algorithm-based services may lead to new forms of exclusion and discrimination.

In the last few years, there have been increasing calls for the government to adopt policies that enable all to participate in what we might think of as digital life, particularly for such services as health care, education, job training, and public safety. Again, we cannot know what the precise policies will be for improving inclusion in digital life. We can know that greater efforts at inclusion increase the value of, and the percentage of, adoption in traditionally low-adoption communities. Both have the impact of improving the economics of new deployments, as they bring new customers, and a greater willingness to pay, to the platform.

Download The Next Generation Network Connectivity Handbook: A Guide for Community Leaders Seeking Affordable, Abundant Bandwidth

About the Authors

Blair Levin is the Executive Director of Gig.U. He also serves as a Non-resident Senior Fellow of the Metropolitan Policy Project of the Brookings Institute. From 2009-2010, Mr. Levin oversaw the development of the FCC’s National Broadband Plan. FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler cited Mr. Levin’s work, noting “no one’s done more to advance broadband expansion and competition through the vision of the National Broadband Plan and Gig.U.” Prior to his work on the National Broadband Plan, Mr. Levin worked as an analyst at Legg Mason and Stifel Nicolaus. Barron’s Magazine noted that in his work, he “has always been on top of developing trends and policy shifts in media and telecommunications … and has proved visionary in getting out in front of many of today’s headline-making events.” From 1993-1997, Levin served as Chief of Staff to FCC Chairman Reed Hundt. Previously, Mr. Levin had practiced law in North Carolina, where he represented new communications ventures, as well as local governments. He is a graduate of Yale College and Yale Law School.

Denise Linn is a Program Analyst for the Smart Chicago Collaborative and a recent graduate of the Harvard Kennedy School. Her professional experience, thus far, has revolved around closing the digital divide, increasing broadband competition, and implementing city-level Internet access projects. Throughout 2014 as an Ash Fellow with the Gig.U project, and as a member of the Berkman Center Fiber Team, she assisted local leaders seeking to build or extend next generation fiber-optic networks to spur economic development. Before graduate school, she was an Economics Research Assistant for the Auctions and Spectrum Access Division of the FCC. She is also an alumna of the AmeriCorps VISTA program and spent a year of service working on broadband access and digital literacy projects with One Economy in North Carolina. She is a graduate of the University of Virginia.

By Blair Levin.
By Denise Linn Riedl.