A remarkable wave of public-private collaboration in broadband is underway—a wave that began in the early months of the COVID-19 pandemic and will likely reach a crest in the next few years as many tens of billions of dollars of public and private capital are invested in next-generation broadband. COVID-19 demonstrated to American policymakers the absolute need for plentiful connectivity and the crises faced by those who don’t have it—and simultaneously demonstrated to private investors the economic potential of best-in-class, future-proof broadband.
One might think this is the moment for community broadband networks. The truth is, locally-directed networks have been serving their communities for a long, long time. In discussing his administration’s plans for broadband, President Joe Biden noted that municipal and cooperative networks should be favored because these providers face less pressure to turn profits and are more committed to serving entire communities.
July 2021 brings us things to celebrate, things to denigrate, and things to absolutely deplore. On the good side, we have come to see that high-speed broadband has become an essential component of modern-day infrastructure. The ambitious broadband proposals of the Biden Administration have rightly gained strong public support, not just in one party, but both. We are also witnessing the reinvigoration of public agencies to protect the public interest, something Biden made clear in his Executive Order on competition.
Schools and libraries have an enormous window of opportunity to help their students and patrons obtain affordable internet access. At the end of this month, the Federal Communications Commission will open a 45-day filing window for the Emergency Connectivity Fund program, which will make $7.17 billion available to fund broadband service and devices off-campus.
It would not be a stretch to say that the Federal Communications Commission’s Rural Digital Opportunity Fund (RDOF) reverse auction has left a bad taste in a lot of mouths. While the FCC was quick to announce success immediately after the close of the auction simply because most eligible areas were assigned, many policy makers and communities see the results as highly problematic and have roundly criticized the outcome, leaving us to ask: Is the FCC’s reverse auction fatally wounded or just bloodied?
With a proposal to spend $100 billion to ensure that all Americans have affordable and reliable internet service, the Biden Administration has made closing the digital divide a huge priority. Much remains to be done to fill in the specifics of what this means, but two types of policy tools come to mind when thinking about how to address the digital divide. Top of mind is promoting competition. Fostering competition means investing in new infrastructure, thereby giving consumers more choice for very high-speed service.
Policymakers and other stakeholders are becoming more aware of the hazards of assuming everyone has online access. Many are interested in understanding the places where online access may be lower than the norm and the population groups that may have limited or no access to the internet. Recent work I have done sheds light on some of these issues.
Internet access is essential for economic development and helping to deliver the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals, especially as even basic broadband can revolutionize the opportunities available to users. Yet, more than one billion people globally still live in areas without internet connectivity. Governments must make strategic choices to connect these citizens, but currently have few independent, transparent, and scientifically reproducible tools to rely on.
How can America’s communities secure the benefits of fiber-optic infrastructure? Our answer is that local governments need not accept a binary option of waiting for the private sector to solve the problem—which the private sector already would have done if it made business sense—or taking on the challenge entirely as a public enterprise. Rather, public-private collaboration can disrupt this binary and give communities options.
“Broadband” is short-hand for an “always-on,” high-speed internet connection provided by a company or other entity known as an “internet service provider” (ISP). We say “always-on” to differentiate contemporary internet connections from the dial-up era of the 1990s, when a user had to dial a telephone number through their computer to connect. Today, the internet comes to us uninterrupted and we cannot get “booted off” if someone lifts up a phone receiver. We say “high-speed” connection because not all internet connections are technically broadband (see below for more on this point).