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Building Out Broadband: Look Before You Leap

Debra Berlyn
Debra Berlyn

2020 taught us that a broadband connection is essential. The proposed American Jobs Plan provision of building high-speed broadband infrastructure in unserved and underserved areas is a magnificent objective. While billions of public and private dollars have already been spent, with many more billions promised, the vision of connecting everyone in our country to broadband is a lofty goal of significant importance.

We are now seeing the determination to connect America play out in a series of bills debated in Congress, initiatives implemented at federal agencies funded through emergency relief spending bills and in the Biden Administration’s proposed American Jobs Plan.  On May 6, at a House Energy & Commerce Committee hearing on broadband access and affordability, Ranking Member Cathy McMorris Rodgers (R-Wash.) said, “We all want to close the digital divide, but the only way to truly achieve this is to have solutions that will produce results.” This is exactly why before fully endorsing the entire designation of these dollars, the plan requires a careful examination and consideration regarding which policies actually get consumers to where they need to be.

Lack of Broadband Brings Challenges

During the challenges of the past year, we’ve seen how so many have faced extraordinary challenges because they didn’t have broadband.  Kids fell behind in school, parents couldn’t do their work, individuals out of work couldn’t search for new jobs, and older adults were isolated in their homes without any opportunity for social contact and unable to get groceries and medicine.  Life without an online connection is bleak indeed. 

The administration’s plan prioritizes municipal broadband providers and electric co-ops for broadband series, with the objective to open and expand opportunities for competition. The plan presents an enticing picture of low prices, new competition and the subsequent result of all consumers served. Local governments and electric co-ops may have a role to play in achieving connectivity, but while they can potentially be viable options, over the years municipalities have entered broadband markets with a history of mixed results and for the benefit of consumers and competition, careful consideration needs to be made regarding best practices.

It is also critical that consumers have the opportunity to continue to receive the benefits private-sector internet-service providers (ISPs), which have invested billions of their own dollars to build broadband networks. It is vital that any plan does not tie their hands in the marketplace.

ISPs have continued to make huge investments to build broadband networks throughout the COVID-19 pandemic and have invested in broadband networks and programs to connect low-income communities throughout 2020 and into 2021.  The efforts have helped kids connect to online classes at school and older adults get connected, reducing isolation. 

In 2021, AT&T announced $2 billion to expand affordable broadband to help close the digital divide.  In addition, this year Comcast’s Internet Essentials dedicated $1 billion to reach 50 million low-income Americans with tools they need to succeed in the digital world. In February, Charter Communications announced a $5 billion multiyear commitment to deliver high-speed broadband to more than 1 million low-income consumers. 

These commitments follow decades of investing trillions of dollars to build the most reliable networks that served most of the country during months of stay-at-home life during the pandemic. At last week’s Congressional hearing, Rodgers attributed the “critical investments made by broadband providers [as leading] to high speeds, high performance, job creation, and a drop in broadband prices.” While all this funding for low-income consumers is critical, according to a recent poll, consumers also trust these companies to give them the best at-home internet service.

Offering an open, competitive marketplace with reliable providers makes sense for most consumers. However, for low-income consumers struggling to make ends meet, a government subsidy program is still needed.  As we can see by the excitement around the Emergency Broadband Benefit (EBB) program, it is possible to develop a new approach, and to solicit a whole host of companies offering to serve those in need. 

Time for Collaboration

Now is the time to work together to determine the next step to extend this program for low-income communities, and that should be a part of any plan to connect America.  In addition to subsidizing the cost of broadband for those in greatest need, it is also important to help them with their digital learning, a particular area of need for first-time tech device users such as those in the older adult community. Digital readiness should be an added component of the plan. Chairman Mike Doyle (D-Pa.) agreed, stating at the hearing, “We need to address programs that expand digital equity, programs that provide outreach and digital literacy and training skills. The opportunities and resources provided by this technology are wasted if you don't know how to use them.”

Yes, it is time to connect everyone to high-speed broadband. While some local governments may offer attractive solutions in the short term, there is no need to hinder others trying to make the investments in the broadband networks of today and tomorrow. A winning strategy does not favor one competitive interest while handcuffing another, particularly one that has earned the trust of a large majority of consumers.

Debra Berlyn is the president of Consumer Policy Solutions, a firm focused on developing progressive policies for consumers in a competitive and innovative marketplace. She is also executive director of the Project to Get Older Adults onLine (Project GOAL), whose sponsors include NCTA–The Internet & Television Association and its member cable companies.