Building a competitive broadband marketplace for rural America
© Getty

It does not matter if you live in rural Maine or metropolitan Minnesota, high-speed Internet access is an increasing necessity, essential to modernize communities and power businesses. But there remains a large gap between those living in urban and rural America. Bipartisan efforts like the recently announced Senate Broadband Caucus demonstrate the need to address this growing disparity that has left rural America behind. To gain access to this 21st century utility, communities have been dependent on just a few broadband gatekeepers who control the high-capacity pipelines that are the base of the digital economy.

The high-capacity broadband lines that connect our banks, airlines, schools, libraries and hospitals, referred to as “business data services”, are critical to each and every community. But today, 97 percent of this high-capacity broadband market is controlled by one — and sometimes two — providers. Roughly one-fifth of all Americans live in rural areas where wireless broadband coverage – and competitive options – is severely limited. Though smart policies can heal this gap over time, they are currently stuck with few choices and no real hope for more investment in the short term.

ADVERTISEMENT

For well over a decade, groups like mine have urged the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) to fix this broken market because we have seen the impact it has on businesses and residents looking to compete in the 21st century economy. In our advocacy, we’ve faced roadblock after roadblock from the largest entrenched telephone companies that have very little incentive to deliver high-speed Internet to the rural communities. These broadband gatekeepers have done everything in their power to keep this market a broken monopoly. After all, limiting competition means guaranteed revenues without the financial burden of investing in next-generation networks.

However, after ten years of battles with these dominant Internet and cable companies, we are hopeful for an important victory. The FCC has undergone a proceeding that can make an immediate difference, requiring that the big monopolies charge reasonable rates for the connections that libraries, schools, and even smaller Internet Service Providers need to keep their doors open. In many small communities, the only path out to the greater Internet is via the big telephone companies’ networks.

Many of these powerful gatekeepers have claimed that the FCC should just let the big companies do what they want – that the market will sort it out. But for over a decade we’ve watched AT&T set the rules and *shocker* - only AT&T has benefited. The biggest telephone companies built massive networks with our ratepayer dollars over 100 years and they are now using that network against our interests. This is why we have an FCC – to make sure a few powerful actors cannot harm all of our small businesses and anchor institutions.

The challenges facing rural communities and counties are well documented and for which broadband connectivity is literally transformative. According to the 2016 FCC Broadband Progress Report, more than 39 percent of rural Americans lack access to advanced telecommunications capabilities as compared to just 4 percent of urban Americans. And this rural-urban disparity doesn’t end there. Small businesses operating in rural areas also see this critical disadvantage. From the challenges of attracting and retaining qualified employees to marketing to potential customers, rural Americans are constantly struggling to compete successfully in the 21st century economy.

Following the most exhaustive data collection in the FCC’s history, the Commission is poised to introduce a technology neutral framework that will promote broadband competition and investment to the benefit of all Americans. The gatekeepers are not going quietly and are engaging in a last ditch Hail Mary effort to derail the FCC’s progress and protect their profits. Although great for their shareholders, these profits are estimated to have cost the U.S. economy $150 billion in the last five years. That is money that should have stayed in local communities, supporting main street businesses.

Ending the digital divide and connecting rural America won’t be resolved by this proceeding alone. But it is an important step in allowing competition to flourish and provides a roadmap that can benefit every community that needs a reliable high-speed connection to power the applications of tomorrow. The immediate benefits that broadband offers is clear — precision agriculture, telemedicine and distance learning — but it’s more important to consider the yet to be invented applications that can further transform our communities. With clear benefits and an enormous amount of support, I encourage the FCC to finish what it started and bring competition to the business data services marketplace.

Christopher Mitchell is the Director of the Community Broadband Networks Initiative at the Institute for Local Self-Reliance and the Policy Director at Next Century Cities. Follow him @communitynets


The views expressed by authors are their own and not the views of The Hill.