To expand rural broadband, President Trump and Congress should listen to local leaders

To expand rural broadband, President Trump and Congress should listen to local leaders
© Getty Images

Recently, President TrumpDonald John TrumpWSJ: Trump ignored advice to confront Putin over indictments Trump hotel charging Sean Spicer ,000 as book party venue Bernie Sanders: Trump 'so tough' on child separations but not on Putin MORE and his administration, members of Congress, and the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) have expressed their commitment to supporting the expansion of broadband to unserved and underserved rural areas. President Trump signed an executive order focused on broadband in rural America this month, and the Communications and Technology subcommittee of the Energy and Commerce Committee held a hearing on 25 different broadband-related bills for consideration.

Unfortunately, the Trump administration has not yet backed up its rhetoric with meaningful action. For example, in a leaked draft outline of the president’s infrastructure plan, broadband deployment was listed as just part of a larger rural infrastructure package, instead of being prioritized with direct funding support (something cited as cause for concern by the bipartisan House Rural Broadband Caucus). And in his State of the Union address, the president didn’t mention broadband or rural internet access when talking about infrastructure priorities.

ADVERTISEMENT
In Congress, of the two dozen bills under consideration, there are several that are concerning. For example, The PEERING Act of 2018 suggests that federal dollars meant to support e-rate and rural health care should instead be used to provide funding for internet exchange facilities, an odd shift of priorities.

 

Local elected and business leaders feel ignored by D.C. policymakers, who hear constantly from the big cable and telephone companies. This is a concern shared by many rural mayors and local elected officials who are part of Next Century Cities, a membership organization of over 180 mayors and municipal leaders committed to expanding access to high-quality broadband for all Americans.

Given the role rural regions have played in electing this president and Congress, Next Century Cities members hope the federal government will take greater action that can really improve rural internet access.

As Congress continues to hold hearings on “internet expansion” and a possible infrastructure bill is developed, we recommend three action steps that President Trump, Congress and the FCC can and should take to solidify their commitment to improving broadband access in rural America:

  1. Create and maintain accurate information about availability. Many rural communities are disqualified from receiving funding for broadband based on inaccurate data supplied by telecom providers. Auditing submitted data could provide the needed transparency and accountability that would both provide evidence of the scope of the access divide and increase a sense of trust that taxpayer dollars are being well spent.

In addition, the FCC should use its authority to require that carriers who are considering the discontinuation of legacy services providing broadband access (such as DSL) must ensure that broadband access of similar or better quality is available before terminating that legacy service.

  1. Encourage local solutions. Both co-ops and municipal networks have proven to be important options in expanding high-quality rural internet access.The federal government should encourage all investment, encouraging states to remove barriers to local solutions and allowing all capable entrants to receive federal funding through the Connect America Fund.

The federal government should encourage competition by rejecting mergers that would continue to significantly undermine competition. The Obama administration was wrong to allow big cable companies such as Comcast to further engage in vertical integration by buying firms such as NBC/Universal. We salute the Department of Justice opposition to AT&T’s bid for Time Warner. It not only would give AT&T more power to discriminate against smaller competitors but also would drive rivals to further consolidate in an destructive cycle that kills choice and innovation in the market.

  1. Promote innovation and competition. The FCC should maintain the existing 3.5 GHz Band rules to ensure rural wireless providers can deliver higher-quality services. Changing these rules, as the FCC has proposed, will limit creative local pilots and innovations in rural communities while disproportionately favoring the large providers. These changes would harm competition, not encourage it.

Congress can also implement policies that promote deployment. Long known to decrease the cost of new builds, Dig Once (for conduit placement) and Climb Once (for pole attachments) policies would encourage broadband deployment across the country.

More information and additional recommendations by rural mayors and local leaders are in the most recent policy agenda of Next Century Cities. Each suggestion will move the conversation from words to action and can help to address the significant broadband access gap that exists in many rural communities.

If federal policymakers really want to expand rural broadband access, they would be well served to listen to the mayors and city leaders from rural areas about what works best for them.

Deb Socia is executive director of the nonprofit Next Century Cities and a former educator and administrator.