The Seven Broadband Gaps
Tuesday, November 14, 2023
The Seven Broadband Gaps
Remarks as prepared for delivery to
The Pew Charitable Trust Broadband Access Initiative's
“Beyond Broadband: Advancing Federal and State Leadership of Our Digital Future”
Where are we in terms of closing the seven gaps that we think of, or should think of, as the elements of the digital divide?
We will, within a few years, largely solve the rural access gap. It is a capital expense problem and Congress, in different legislative packages, provided enough capital to assure that within a few years, at least 98-99 percent of all locations in the U.S. will have access to a fiber or cable network capable of at least 100/20.
We are on the verge of going backward on the affordability gap, making sure broadband is affordable to all. This is an operating expense problem, requiring a sustainable revenue stream. It is currently being addressed with the Affordable Connectivity Program (ACP), but the politics of budget expenditures are, to say the least, challenging.
There are alternatives. For example, as health care is increasingly provided over telecommunications, Medicaid, which is a health care insurance program, would save money if the persons it covers could use broadband for some of their health care needs. We should allow Medicaid to let states explore issuing vouchers, similar to the ACP.
But the bottom line is that we must find a way to provide a baseline of support for low-income persons, who need broadband, just as we do in providing support for that population group for food, health care, utilities, and other basic needs.
We need to solve the continuing problems of the operating gap of very high-cost rural providers, the adoption gap, that requires ongoing training programs, and the institutional gap, relating to those institutions—schools, libraries, and rural health facilities—that need broadband but for whom their current revenues are insufficient.
These three are also an operating expense problem, requiring a sustainable revenue stream. Two of the three are assisted by current Universal Service Fund (USF) programs.
The USF, however, is threatened by economic, legal, and political challenges. I won’t go into each except to say that there is a material risk that in the first quarter of 2024, the Fifth Circuit will in essence blow up the USF framework that has supported rural operating gaps and institutional gaps for the last three decades.
And in the same quarter, we may run out of ACP funding.
Either event would constitute a crisis.
I don’t know the right word for two concurrent crises, but together, they would constitute the biggest calamity—in terms of the connectivity abilities of persons, institutions, and enterprises moving backward—that our communications ecosystem has ever experienced.
The sixth gap might be thought of as the cable/copper gap. That is the gap in outcomes between those markets where we have cable/fiber competition and those where the competition is between cable, copper, and maybe fixed wireless.
We don’t know how big this gap will be nor do we really know how problematic it is to be a customer in a market where the only wired competitor to cable is provided by copper or wireless. And we are not likely to know until later this decade when the current private market-driven fiber upgrade cycle is complete.
But it is likely that when the dust settles, most residences will enjoy cable and fiber options, but it is likely that tens of millions will still not have that choice.
And when we study those markets, we will probably—but not certainly—find that, as a result, lots of people are paying more and getting less than similarly situated persons enjoying cable/fiber competition.
This is not an easy problem to address. And it is not our highest priority gap currently. Further, given the significant private market—as well as government—investment into fiber, it would be difficult to craft a smart, effective national strategy.
But in a few years, the situation will be clearer, and the gap is likely to emerge as an important problem for many cities.
It is safe to predict that government will not invest to overbuild cable.
Addressing this gap requires creative solutions.
We are already seeing some at the local level. For example, Memphis has a permitting and rights of way reform effort to spur investment.
We will need more. And we will need to study what works so that when the policy spotlight shifts to this gap, we have some wisdom for what communities can do to close that gap.
But the biggest gap is the utilization gap.
That is the gap between how we are currently using the network and how we could be using the network to improve outcomes in education, health care, government services, public safety, carbon reduction, civic engagement, and other public purposes.
The National Broadband Plan laid out strategies and tactics to do so, but the follow-up, in my view, was not as great as it should have been.
Moreover, AI super-charges the opportunity.
Everything we thought possible in the 2010 Plan is now much easier to achieve if there is a focus on doing so.
Let me close with an example.
In terms of future economic and social security, few things are as important as a literate population. Yet today, nearly 70 percent of 4th graders read below a 4th grade level.
Teaching reading is hard, as it requires so much personalized attention to the child’s specific needs.
Broadband alone can offer many ways to aid teachers with reading instruction.
AI can make that effort much more personalized and effective.
With AI, we should set a goal that by 2033, 70 percent of 4th graders should read at a 5th grade level.
And we should set similar goals for achieving important public milestones across our economy and society.
But to do achieve those goals, we need to close all seven broadband gaps.
Blair Levin is the Policy Advisor to New Street Research and a nonresident senior fellow at Brookings Metro. Prior to joining New Street, Blair served as Chief of Staff to FCC Chairman Reed Hundt (1993-1997), directed the writing of the United States National Broadband Plan (2009-2010), and was a policy analyst for the equity research teams at Legg Mason and Stif Nicolaus. Levin is a graduate of Yale College and Yale Law School.
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