On February 17, the House Subcommittee on Communications and Technology held a hearing on COVID-19's impact on the digital divide and the homework gap. There was bipartisan agreement on the importance of expanding broadband access. Democrats focused more on affordability issues, especially during the pandemic, as well as improving data on where broadband is available and where it isn't. Republicans mostly extolled deregulation as a way to encourage rural broadband deployment and the need to streamline wireless infrastructure to facilitate buildout of the next generation of wireless, 5G.
Residential and small-business customers have too few options for fixed, robust broadband service, what we refer to as “High-Performance Broadband.” Solving our deployment and competition problems requires the construction of new broadband networks. In other words, we need more competition, and we need more broadband deployment. Our new policy brief concentrates on one solution—the construction of open-access, middle-mile networks.
In October 2019, the Benton Institute for Broadband & Society issued Broadband for America’s Future: A Vision for the 2020s. The agenda was comprehensive, constructed upon achievements in communities and insights from experts across the nation. The report outlined the key building blocks of broadband policy—deployment, competition, community anchor institutions, and digital equity (including affordability and adoption).
Thirty percent of all Americans live in multi-tenant environments (“MTEs”) like apartment buildings. Their annual income tends to be only about 54% of median homeowner income, so they are at greater risk of not being able to afford broadband. When apartment owners can profit by restricting tenants’ broadband options and reducing competition, it adds to our nation’s broadband affordability challenges.
Broadband competition is more important than ever because – in these crises and beyond – America has fast-forwarded into its broadband future. But broadband competition is limited: At a typical broadband speed of 100/10 Mbps, at least 80% of Americans face either a monopoly (no choice) or a duopoly (only one choice) for fixed service. It’s worse in rural America, where monopoly is even more prevalent. The impact is obvious: higher prices, lower quality and/or slowed innovation limiting the ability of people to participate fully in society and the economy.
In Washington, DC, today, policymakers, public interest advocates and nonprofits, researchers, and the business community are gathering for the 2020 State of the Net Conference. Hosted by the Internet Education Foundation, State of the Net explores important, emerging trends and their impact on internet policy.
My theme today – what is going unnoticed. Simply put, we should pay more attention to the lack of competition in the provision of fixed broadband to homes and small businesses. As a general matter, we can expect people with only one choice to pay monopoly prices, and people with only two to pay the higher prices typically charged by duopolies. People with three or more choices typically pay less. Clearly, people who can barely afford to pay a competitive price, say, low-income Americans, are particularly vulnerable to artificially high prices.
In the next decade, everyone in America should be able to use High-Performance Broadband.
The purpose of Broadband for America’s Future: A Vision for the 2020s is to collect, combine, and contribute to a national broadband agenda for the next decade, enlisting the voices of broadband leaders in an ongoing discussion on how public policy can close the digital divide and extend digital opportunity everywhere. Leaders at all levels of government should ensure that everyone is able to use High-Performance Broadband in the next decade by embracing the following building blocks of policy: