Like food, water and electricity, robust broadband connectivity is a must-have for anyone who wishes to fully participate in our 21st century digital economy. From downloading and submitting job applications to having access to comprehensive health care, connectivity transforms and even saves lives.
West Virginia’s Dave Arnold, co-owner and founder of Adventures on the Gorge, knows this firsthand. The communications world has changed a lot since Chief Justice John Marshall surveyed the New River Gorge in 1812. Today, the Gorge attracts rafters from all over the country. For small businesses and adventurers alike, connectivity is the key to ensuring Americans in the years to come will enjoy the discoveries of Americans 200 years ago. Minnesota’s Kirsten Kennedy also knows how vital connectivity can be. As a 45-year-old, single mother of five, she took several college courses online. With a broadband connection and lots of drive, she was able to earn two degrees and today leads her community as the mayor of North Branch. Those of us with regular access to broadband too often take it for granted, but, in the hands of those who have done without, it can reboot lives and kickstart economic development.
It is both painful and unfortunate that far too many Americans never get this chance. At least 1.5 million people are still relegated to a second-class, mobile broadband experience. While the majority of people who live in urban areas have the option of easily downloading a song or a large document in a matter of seconds, the tens of thousands of Americans stuck in a 2G reality need upwards of eight minutes to listen to or to read the same files. In a country where 92 percent of adults have a mobile handset, this is unacceptable. We must respond to the clear demand for mobile connectivity and put robust mobile broadband services into the hands, pockets and palms of all Americans.
Fortunately, we know there is a digital divide and we have been working to close it. In 2011, the Federal Communications Commission established a one-time, $300 million mobile broadband fund for unserved Americans, and put in place a mechanism for another $50 million to be dedicated to tribal lands. The recipients of those funds are now deploying 3G and 4G services to at least 83,494 road miles that previously went without advanced mobile services. In addition, the FCC promised it would move to a second phase, which would bring a permanent source of mobile broadband funding to areas that need it.
Now, half a decade later, we have yet to deliver on that promise, but today there is hope. As the nation marches toward a 5G world, we must ensure that rural and tribal areas are not stuck in a 2G past. With hundreds of thousands of road miles that may cost billions of dollars to cover with 4G LTE and more than 30 percent of the road miles in West Virginia still not covered, time is of the essence. We must use the best data available in order to implement common-sense principles that can get us the most bang for our buck.
Specifically, we need to structure the “fund to the need,” rather than the “need to the fund.” Our investment in rural and in underserved areas of America must be driven by the needs of the consumers who have little to no coverage. Using the lessons of Mobility Fund Phase I, the FCC should not shy away from directing funds to those places that are particularly challenging to serve.
Second, new mobile broadband deployment must be targeted to those communities that have traditionally been left behind. Public safety first responders, students and consumers in all areas of the nation should have access to comparable services. As a necessary and statutory requirement of universal service, areas that are economically challenging to serve must have sufficient and predictable funding.
Third, good coverage data, together with a robust challenge process that allows for the use of targeted engineering data by providers to contest or confirm coverage claims, will ensure we get this right. Accurate data is the best way to expand and deliver mobile broadband access to where it is needed the most.
Now is the time to turn the page and make Mobility Fund Phase II a reality. The FCC can ensure that adequate incentives, even in our most rural communities, are offered to carriers while simultaneously extracting the most value for each dollar spent. No citizen deserves second class mobile broadband and it is time that all Americans — whether they’re from Farmington, W.Va., or Bamberg, S.C. — receive the reliable mobile broadband coverage many people take for granted.
Sen. Joe Manchin (D) is the senior U.S. senator for the state of West Virginia. Mignon Clyburn is a commissioner of the Federal Communications Commission.
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