Put Out the Red Light (Report)
Monday, October 2, 2023
Put Out the Red Light (Report)
Have you read Senator Cruz’s Red Light Report on broadband funding that came recently? The report accomplished several things:
- It put Sting’s earworm “Roxanne” into the broadband world’s collective psyche (IYKYK).
- It highlighted past failures of federal broadband programs and the need to ensure that Broadband Equity, Access, and Deployment (BEAD) Program funding is used to target the truly unserved.
- It regurgitated the same tired “technology neutral” policy stance that has relegated rural America to second-class broadband service for the past two decades.
- Senator Cruz calls out that massive federal investments have been made to bridge the digital divide without much success. He is right. A 2021 Deloitte study showed that $54 billion in federal broadband funding was successful in closing the digital divide by less than 1%. Unimpressive. We simply must get this effort right.
- He called for more accurate broadband availability data. While maps have improved vastly, flaws remain. However, we can’t wait until mapping is perfect until we begin to solve the divide.
- The report brought to light the absurdity of using public funds to bring broadband to unserved mansions/vacation homes. Understandable, but there was no means test in the BEAD legislation. I assume the goal “Internet for All” had a better ring to it than “Internet for All Except the Fabulously Wealthy.”
- The report references only “unserved” data and ignores the “underserved” category. This skews the cost-per-location numbers considerably. For instance, Kansas has ~144,000 BEAD qualifying locations. Only 87,489 are noted in the report.
- The report incorrectly presents that BEAD funds can be used to duplicate build-outs covered by other federal programs such as the Federal Communications Commission's RDOF, U.S. Department of the Treasury Treasury's CPF, and USDA Rural Development's ReConnect programs. This is patently false. The FCC collects and publishes the national broadband funding map to avoid funding overlaps, and the US Department of Commerce, NTIA requires de-duplication efforts at every stage of BEAD planning. States must list existing broadband efforts in their Initial Proposal Volume 1. Locations with a commitment for broadband service under another state or federal program are not eligible for BEAD funding. States must also run a challenge process to further vet if locations proposed for eligibility are being served with private investment or are set to receive qualifying speeds under another grant obligation.
- The report lumps all technologies together as equally beneficial to our country’s universal connectivity goals. While it will absolutely take a variety of technologies to connect all Kansans with 100/20 service, there are marked differences in scalability, bandwidth, latency, etc. between fiber and other technologies.
The implication is that the least expensive technology is the best solution. This mentality is precisely what has led to the failure of prior programs to connect America. Our country has heretofore created a system of broadband subsidies that incents the deployment of bare minimum infrastructure, setting up taxpayers to continually reinvest in the same areas every five to seven years. As recently as 2020, there were federal programs doling out millions to bring rural communities internet at 10/1 speeds—a metric that didn’t even meet the definition of broadband. BEAD aims to build networks not just for today, but for the future, which is why it prioritizes fiber.
Also lost in the tech-neutral buzz is that fiber feeds all other technologies. Getting as much fiber into the ground as possible with BEAD funds will benefit innovation in, and the reach of, alternative technologies.
A tech-neutral position also leaves out relevant nuance surrounding the variances within certain modes of delivery. For instance, all fixed wireless (FWA) is not created equally. Next generation FWA has made great strides in non-line-of-sight offerings, interference mitigation, capacity, and scalability that traditional FWA has not. Parsing out these differences is important as states make investment decisions.
The underlying message in the report is that the value of broadband investment rests solely in the number of people served, so the technology needs of those in rural areas will have to be less than those in more densely populated areas. But the value of rural broadband investment extends past the number of passings per mile.
A quarter of Kansas counties average only three BSLs per square mile. But guess who is feeding America? The farmers in those very rural areas. And their operations are increasing dependent upon broadband-enabled equipment for real-time access to markets, application of inputs, and the ability to sell products. A USDA report published last month shows that 49% of Kansas farmers are using precision agriculture practices. That number will invariably grow. Viewing “efficiency” only through the lens of cost-per-passing ignores the disproportionate economic gains that broadband can bring to rural areas.
So as policymakers and states digest the Red Light Report, I hope they will do it with a few questions in mind:
- Do we want this BEAD investment to carry us through the next five years, or through the next 50?
- Do we want a two-class system of internet access that leaves some Americans without the opportunity that future-proof broadband brings? Or is equity the goal?
This article originally appeared on LinkedIn; it is reprinted here with the author's permission.
Jade Piros de Carvalho was appointed Director of the Kansas Office of Broadband Development (KOBD) in June 2022. The mission of KOBD is to facilitate affordable and reliable high-speed internet service to every Kansan home and business. Prior to joining the Kansas Department of Commerce, Jade worked in advocacy for rural broadband expansion policy for a private Kansas internet service provider. She also served on the Hutchinson City Council for 10 years, including three terms as Mayor.
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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