Running for office? You should have a plan for broadband access

Running for office? You should have a plan for broadband access
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Candidates for office at any level of government, and from any party, should consider universal broadband access a policy priority. On its surface, broadband access can seem like a tech issue. But at its core, connectivity is about equal access to opportunities and self-empowerment for all Americans.

Many of us take connectivity for granted, but there’s still a long way to go before the whole country has access to fast, affordable and reliable broadband. The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) counts that 21 million Americans don’t have access to broadband, and recent data from Microsoft indicates that over 162 million Americans don’t use the internet at broadband speeds.

This should raise alarm bells with any candidate and with all Americans. The internet is a tool that empowers individuals and strengthens communities, and one that is essential for a modern healthy democracy. In an age in which the day’s news is read in email inboxes, presidential statements are made on Twitter, and city council meetings are live-streamed, we cannot be satisfied with a system that leaves so many out of political and civil discourse. 

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Broadband also contributes to general economic growth, and helps communities respond and adapt to change. For instance, Lafayette, Louisiana has historically been heavily dependent on the oil and gas industries, but a city-wide fiber broadband network helped attract new and diverse businesses to the region, creating new opportunities for prosperity. 

And 1,200 miles north, a new medical school chose the small, rural town of Gaylord, Minn. to lay down its cornerstone, citing a burgeoning fiber cooperative network as a key factor in its choice.

It’s clear that the people and communities without access will be left behind. And when we take a closer look at who that is, the implications are stark. 

The digital divide is drawn over existing lines of inequity in the United States. Low-income individuals, those with lower levels of educational attainment, racial minorities, the elderly, indigenous communities, and rural Americans are all less likely to have internet at home or to own a smartphone

The very people who could most benefit — those who live in faltering communities, those with the jobs most threatened by automation, and those with limited capital or structural power — are the ones who lack access to one of the most transformative tools in the world.

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It’s not an unsolvable problem. Broadband is relatively affordable when compared to other essential infrastructure: for the same public investment that it takes to build a quarter mile of a light rail line or to replace 15 miles of water pipes and meters, a city could build 87 miles of an underground fiber broadband network. With leadership from candidates and the right policy reforms, change is within reach.

We should start by requiring the FCC to collect address-level data about service availability, actual service speeds, price of service, and last-mile infrastructure capability. The agency’s current data doesn’t provide the information or granularity needed in order to make targeted investments.

When the federal government or states administer grants or loans for broadband infrastructure, they should incentivize support for fiber networks, which are high capacity and easier to upgrade than other types of infrastructure. There’s no use investing in networks that are going to be outdated by the time the shovel hits the dirt.

We need to recommit to the principle of competition. State and federal leaders should scrutinize telecommunications mergers and encourage new infrastructure investments as opposed to dismissing network competition as “overbuilding.” 

Local governments can facilitate competition through policies such as dig once and one touch make ready, which streamline infrastructure deployment processes, and can encourage competition in multi-unit buildings, like apartments, where it’s common for landlords and ISPs to strike exclusivity agreements that create de facto monopolies. 

We also need to support the tenacious, creative local networks that often connect communities that would have otherwise been left behind. 

Over 500 local governments across the U.S. have invested in municipal broadband networks in some form, but 19 states have legislation in place that put up significant barriers to or outright ban municipal networks.

Universal connectivity requires all options being left on the table, and it’s critical that states and the federal government support local solutions.

Finally, digital inclusion is an essential component of any connectivity strategy. Mere access to broadband isn’t enough. Affordable service options for low-income families, digital literacy programs, and community-driven inclusion initiatives will make all the difference in bringing everyone online.

Universal broadband access provides a means for individual empowerment, resilient communities and a better democracy. Democrat or Republican, president or mayor, access to broadband should be a keystone in any plan to make our country better.

Cat Blake is the senior program manager for Next Century Cities, a nonprofit membership organization that supports more than 200 communities across the country that are working to achieve universal broadband access.