This past week the U.S. Senate took a huge leap forward by passing a bipartisan transformational investment in our country’s essential roads, bridges, and broadband.
But, with as little as seven legislative weeks left in 2021 and low expectations of bipartisan legislative achievements in 2022 due to the realities of an election year, the time is now for the House to take up the package that supports a major expansion of broadband nationwide. After all, the need for a strong Internet for all Americans is one of the few issues with bipartisan, bicameral agreement.
The pandemic taught us that fast, reliable, affordable access to the Internet is not a luxury, but a staple in our everyday lives. As the public health crisis continues, we continue to use it to stay connected to family and friends, attend classes from kindergarten to graduate school, as well as engage in business and work remotely, enabling the economy to keep moving and many people to keep their jobs. We are also seeing more permanent changes to health care via telehealth that now allows more patients to not only see a doctor, but perhaps a specialist who practices in another state, as an example.
With all these gains and new versions of ‘normal’, the reality is that the Internet — much less a strong Internet — is not available to everyone. Reliance on the Internet has put the digital divide front and center. For reference, nearly 49 percent of the world’s population, almost 50 of Americans, and close to 70 of indigenous communities in the U.S. lack reliable access to the Internet.
As discussions continue around broadband within the larger infrastructure packages, we must remember that there is a great need for connectivity for those who don’t live in metropolitan areas. The reality is that members of tribal communities, and more rural areas don’t have access to reliable Internet. This means they are not able to participate in virtual learning, telehealth appointments or remote work. And for many, this is a serious impediment to their lives.
In addition to the current infrastructure talks about nationwide broadband, Congress should consider other policies to increase connectivity. First, Congress can encourage policies at the federal, regional, and local levels that support the development of community networks. Community networks happen when people come together to build and maintain the necessary infrastructure for Internet connection, most often in areas where traditional Internet Service Providers lack the business incentive to build and operate networks. By amending prohibitive legislation, to prevent municipal networks from paying higher taxes for instance and developing policies that support a wide range of connectivity models, such as mesh networks, the development of community networks can thrive.
Second, Congress should consider criteria for new and existing funding mechanisms, such as government grants and loans, universal service funds, and private foundation grants available for providers, such as community networks, that operate non-traditional revenue models, which may provide complementary, discounted, or donation-based service.
Third, lawmakers should streamline affordable licensing frameworks for community benefit and local/regional Internet Service Providers (ISPs).
And finally, Congress should consider Dig Once – a policy that would mandate fiber to be deployed as part of construction projects like road building – and infrastructure sharing – where two or more telecommunications providers share physical infrastructure to reduce costs – to facilitate the efficient deployment of middle-mile fiber, thus connecting more communities nationwide.
There are many ways to close the digital divide and connect more people in more communities. We commend Congress for their work thus far and urge them to continue to do more to ensure a strong Internet is available to everyone.
Mark Buell is the Regional Vice President, North America, for the Internet Society, overseeing engagement activities in Canada and the United States.