Policymakers Should Consider Broadband Infrastructure a National Priority

“Build it and they will come.”

This line has become shorthand for the idea that new infrastructure, once built, attracts customers. But with broadband—the technology that brings high-speed, reliable internet into our homes, schools, farms, and workplaces—the quote may have an unhappy twist: if you don’t build it, they won’t have a chance.

What’s missing is the infrastructure. The internet doesn’t come out of thin air: Broadband requires an array of physical elements—fibers, towers, and cables, among others—to move words, images, and sound from their source to our computers, laptops, and smartphones. At least 24 million Americans are still waiting for that infrastructure to bring them broadband, which is no longer just a convenience but rather is an essential cornerstone of American life—critical to education, health care, and the economy.

Before these millions of Americans can fully engage with people and information over the internet, the gaps in connectivity must be closed. That won’t happen unless broadband is included in any plan to modernize our nation’s infrastructure for the 21st century. 

Fortunately, national leaders are placing greater emphasis on the importance of getting all communities online—and stressing how that goal will fail without a commitment from all levels of government, the private sector, and community partners to build the core structures that make broadband possible.

At the federal level, the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) ReConnect program will provide loans and grants to fund the cost of construction, improvement, or acquisition of facilities to provide broadband service in rural areas. Since the program was announced in 2018, it has received strong support from Congress and the Trump administration, with $1.15 billion appropriated so far and another $200 million requested in the president’s 2020 budget proposal: a total investment of $1.35 billion.

But there’s a challenge: determining where broadband is missing. That might appear to be a simple task, but it isn’t. The primary source of information on connectivity comes from a national broadband map managed by the Federal Communications Commission (FCC). Policymakers, community leaders, and consumers have raised concerns about the accuracy of the map and its underlying data. If internet service providers (ISPs) report just one home or building in a census block as connected, the map shows the entire block as served even if many parts don’t have access. This can have serious consequences, including jeopardizing a community’s eligibility for federal funding. What’s more, the data are self-reported and don’t shed light on actual speed experienced by users. 

That’s why building physical structures for broadband must begin with a more precise understanding of where broadband is and is not. The FCC continues to seek input on improving its data collection and the U.S. Department of Commerce’s National Telecommunications and Information Agency (NTIA) is partnering with states to identify additional sources of data that will enhance the map’s usability for policymakers.

In addition to increased funding and developing a more accurate broadband map, the federal government is helping states expand connectivity by promoting coordination and expanding grant eligibility. Last year, the fiscal year 2018 omnibus spending bill included a provision requiring states that receive federal-aid highway funds to identify a broadband utility coordinator. This individual will establish and manage broadband infrastructure right-of-way efforts, with specific focus on activities that eliminate the need to dig up the road more than once. In addition, the BUILD Transportation grant program, which funds state, local, and tribal transportation investment, will support the deployment of broadband as part of projects eligible for funding in 2019.

And the federal government is also trying to enhance coordination between federal agencies to improve availability across the country. The American Broadband Initiative—a partnership between the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy, NTIA, the USDA, and other federal agencies—is focused on implementing processes and tools that will help increase private sector investment in broadband, including building a map of federal assets (such as towers on public lands) that can be used to connect networks, updating broadband availability data, and streamlining federal permitting processes.

Some states haven’t been waiting for federal action and are implementing policy and investing in broadband infrastructure to grow connectivity and ensure that broadband remains a policy priority. Virginia is updating its electric grid, and a recent law allows its two major utility companies to add fiber—which ISPs will be able to lease to provide broadband to homes and businesses—as part of the upgrade. Wyoming modified its definition of “unserved” populations, raising the definition for high-speed reliable internet from 10 Megabits per second (Mbps) download and 1 Mbps upload to the FCC’s standard of 25 Mbps download and 3 Mbps upload—which allows more communities to qualify for state funding than under the prior definition. In Tennessee, the governor is asking the legislature for $20 million to continue funding the state’s broadband grant program and help bring “connectivity to every corner of our state.”

Like the federal government, state leaders have also implemented measures to facilitate and coordinate buildout. Nevada implemented a “dig-once” program in 2017 that allows the state to run fiber along rights-of-way that the state already owns—and to enter into agreements giving ISPs access to that fiber. And over the past several years, Tennessee, Indiana, and Georgia have followed Wisconsin’s lead by creating “broadband-ready community” certification programs that validate which localities have taken steps to remove or minimize barriers to permitting and access to private property—key factors in building broadband networks.

States are also improving inter-agency coordination. West Virginia’s Broadband Enhancement Council includes legislators, agency heads, and community leaders. Georgia’s Broadband Deployment Initiative brings together five state agencies, ISPs, and communities throughout the state to build new broadband infrastructure. And other states, including Virginia, Oregon, and Washington, are similarly focused on coordinating their broadband efforts to ensure that statewide efforts to improve broadband are cohesive and effective.

There may have been a time when high-speed internet could be considered a luxury. But now it’s a necessity, an indispensable tool for information and communication. Modern classrooms require students to have internet access. Hospitals and law enforcement track and transfer records using the internet, businesses rely on it for daily commerce, and remote workers use it to stay productive. And as bipartisan support grows for new investment in infrastructure, filling in the empty spaces on the broadband map needs to be a big part of the effort.

Anne Stauffer is director of The Pew Charitable Trusts’ work on fiscal federalism, broadband research and student loan research, and Kathryn de Wit is manager of Pew’s broadband research initiative.

This article first appeared at The Hill.

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