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).
In the midst of the COVID-19 crisis, the General Assembly is considering Gov. Northam’s request to increase funding to bring better broadband to all Virginians. Such support is important, as students stay home and learn, adults stay home and work, and seniors stay home even as they visit their doctor. Funding for broadband would be an important step — and a wake-up call to the federal government. Virginia’s broadband challenges are multifaceted. In rural areas, nearly a third of households have no access to broadband.
About one-third of the U.S. job market is made up of middle-skill jobs, which do not require four-year college degrees. Data indicate that the number of these jobs exceeds the supply of available workers. The skills needed for these jobs include facility with the internet and computers.
The 10th Anniversary of the National Broadband Plan offers a chance to reflect on the progress made in the past 10 years and lessons for the future. My focus will be on the progress in addressing the digital divide – increasing the number of Americans with broadband at home. The National Broadband Plan’s guiding principles for broadband adoption still resonate:
We are now in the third generation talking about getting broadband out to all our citizens. We are nowhere near getting the job done. It’s a market failure. It’s a government failure. And it’s a national embarrassment. Big telcos and their allies at the Federal Communications Commission and Congress tell us all is well and we’re on track. Pretty long track! Make that claim in many of our inner cities like Baltimore, Milwaukee, and Newark and you will get laughed out of town.