Connecting Communities with High-Performance Broadband

Benton Institute for Broadband & Society

Thursday, October 17, 2019

Digital Beat

Connecting Communities with High-Performance Broadband

AnchorNETS: 9th Annual SHLB Conference

October 17, 2019

(remarks as prepared for delivery)

Thank you to the SHLB Coalition and John Windhausen for the opportunity to present this panel.

Thank you to the schools, the libraries, the local institutions around the country that are connecting their communities.

The Benton Institute for Broadband & Society will release its report “Broadband for America’s Future: A Vision for the 2020s” on October 30th. Our purpose is simple – to demonstrate that communities around the country know what to do to empower better broadband. They just need the support of leaders at the national, state and local level.

Jon Sallet

We’ve come a long way. This may seem like ancient history – indeed it may be ancient history – but I remember sitting in Vice President Gore’s West Wing office in 1993 with  a small group of advisors who met with him weekly to talk about telecommunications issues. We were discussing whether President Clinton should use his State of the Union Address to pledge to connect key community institutions to the internet by the year 2000. And – this is the only time I remember him doing this – the Vice President went around the room and asked each of us if we agreed that this pledge could be achieved. Jim Kohlenberger, a Benton Board Member who was in the room, will remember. Each of us did agree and in 1994, President Clinton set the national goal of connecting “every classroom, every clinic, every library, every hospital in America” by 2000.

We’ve come further, faster than we could have imagined. The federal government has played a crucial role—in particular through the E-Rate program and through National Telecommunications and Information Administration grants that supported middle-mile network construction.

The federal government has lent a hand; local leaders have walked the walk. And the people we have on our panel today are among those who represent the walkers.

  • Larra Clark of the American Library Association, who reminds us that libraries are uniquely trusted guides to digital accomplishment.
  • Luis Wong, CEO of the California K-12 High Speed Network, who we met at this conference last year and who has demonstrated what a rural, border community can achieve that the private sector had not.
  • Joe Sawasky, President and CEO of Michigan’s Merit Network, whose work has filled gaps, and then filled more – from connecting the state’s anchor institutions to working with communities as they speed local deployment, to enlisting school children to help us understand where broadband is – and where it isn’t.

Based on what we’ve learned, we’ve formulated three basic principles for community anchor institution broadband policy.

  • First, community anchor institutions need access to competitively-priced, High-Performance Broadband, and they deserve the discretion to make informed choices about what best serves their communities.
  • Second, broadband is needed to connect community anchor institutions with their users wherever they may be.
  • Third, community anchor institutions can serve as launching pads for communitywide broadband access and, in places where broadband has already been deployed, more broadband competition.

So, how do we support these principles? Let me review some of our recommendations. We need to first:

  • Establish connectivity goals fit for the rising demands of the next decade. Here’s just one example – 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 the Topeka and Shawnee Library need? “It’s like water pressure,” she says. “How much water pressure can I get? I need it all!”
  • Support and promote competition to drive better broadband at lower prices. And that means the Federal Communications Commission should support special construction that deliver the most cost-effective way of bringing broadband to schools and libraries. As we explained in a 2019 Benton white paper, the delay and denial of special construction applications looks to be a secret shift in policy away from the 2014 Modernization Orders, which remain the law of the land. Special construction is especially important to rural schools and libraries. In funding year 2018, schools and libraries sought $430 million for special construction; a majority of these applications came from rural communities.

Then, to advance our second principle, we need to:

  • Expand E-Rate funding to support the ability of lower-income students to gain educational access through LTE subscriptions or use of unlicensed TV white spaces, and
  • Provide low-cost, fixed-broadband connections to people who need to access broadband to receive critical social services, including health care.

Finally, in the 2020s, public policy should recognize that bits are books, bits are blackboards, and bits are basic tools of medical practice. I was standing in Commissioner Mignon Clyburn’s office at the FCC one day and I remember distinctly her saying, if we are running fiber to a school, then why shouldn’t that fiber be able to run to the neighborhood the school is in?

So let’s:

  • Allow all broadband providers access to government-supported middle-mile networks so that these networks can act as launching pads for community-wide residential service and
  • Permit all broadband providers to use any extra capacity on Federally-funded broadband networks to community anchor institutions to deliver residential service, just so long as federal funding does not go to any non-shared costs of the residential network.

To recap, the “A, B, C’s” of our proposals:

  • Access to competitively-priced, High-Performance Broadband with the discretion to make informed choices about what best serves community anchor institutions’ missions.
  • Broadband that connects community anchor institutions with their users wherever they may be.
  • Community anchor institutions as launching pads for communitywide broadband access and competition.

Of course, there’s more. Robust, competitive broadband is hugely important in the next decade – to communities, to workers, to broadly-distributed economic growth. And there are very real challenges to address: for example, deployment, and competition, and ensuring that broadband is affordable and people have the digital skills they need to use it.

But the connection – no pun intended – between these issues is community institutions. They can drive deployment, stimulate competition, offer affordable alternatives, and provide digital-skills training.

Community anchor institutions remain the glue that helps keep communities thriving together.

That’s why we’re privileged to be here with leaders of community efforts, on our panel and in the room today.

Thank you.

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

Download a special Benton Report by Jonathan Sallet

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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