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With the internet serving as a vital on-ramp to opportunity in today’s economy and society, America’s broadband providers are working hard, and investing mightily, to connect communities across the nation — rural, urban and everywhere in between — so that our country remains the land of opportunity for all. These companies are on the front lines investing billions of dollars and literally in the trenches deploying broadband to some of the most remote areas of the nation.
Despite all the progress we see in connecting communities, however, some skeptics claim that broadband providers have failed to answer the call to connect unserved rural areas. One critic went so far as to assert that “telecom companies have largely abandoned rural America” — a blatantly false allegation.
Broadband providers share a deep commitment to the communities in which they live and serve, and for many of our small, rural members, it was often their grandparents who first connected their hometowns via telephone lines, and today they are doing the same for next-gen services like broadband.
Here’s some truth-telling.
U.S. broadband providers have put over $1.6 trillion of private investment into building, upgrading, and maintaining networks since 1996. As a result, over the past 10 years, broadband in rural homes has risen 71 percent. Research shows that internet infrastructure is in place to serve 98 percent of the country, with telecom companies in particular leading the way in connecting rural America. And this commitment has not wavered.
Telecom companies work constantly to upgrade their network infrastructure and expand higher speed offerings. In many areas, competition drives such upgrades, but complex challenges remain in extending high-speed broadband to the hardest-to-reach rural areas where economics make it difficult. As population density drops, economies of scale subside and build-out becomes increasingly and prohibitively expensive.
Thankfully, there are several proven and effective federal programs that support broadband providers efforts to deploy broadband to these rural, unserved communities. Through Phase II of the Federal Communications Commission’s Connect America Fund Auction, USTelecom members have committed to serve over 3.6 million rural locations by 2020, and the multiple millions more people that live and work in these homes and businesses. In fact, this year’s reports show that Phase II has already connected 1.4 million locations.
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The truth is, there are sobering fiscal realities to deploying strong, reliable broadband networks to the most remote corners of our nation. And there is no question that it will take relentless, coordinated effort by both the private and public sector to finish the job. But misguided approaches to solving the problem will only serve to expand the digital divide.
Some prior funding efforts have resulted in overbuilding, rather than maximizing coverage across truly unserved areas. Lack of coordination between agencies and existing programs – like the also-proven Universal Service Fund – not only led to the overbuilding of broadband networks, but also to the distortion of competition.
Federal investment must be used to fill the gaps in truly unserved areas, not create false market competition by allowing utilities with established monopolies to extend their market power over this already fragile market. Together, we should be laser-focused on serving the unserved and maximizing the federal support to do it, while avoiding duplication and overbuilding, and ensuring efficiencies wherever possible.
One thing we can certainly all agree on is the importance of connecting Americans in every part of the country. Steps to move past heavy-handed regulation are propelling us in the right direction by helping increase investment in broadband deployment. That’s why we have advocated for changes to legal and regulatory processes to spur competition and investment where possible, and government support to close the digital divide where economics are more challenging.
In my travels across the country visiting our rural members and the communities they serve, I have witnessed first-hand the Herculean efforts of small broadband providers to reach their most remote customers—pulling fiber mile after mile over the roughest of terrain, often for just a single home. The road ahead is long, but I can assure you that our members will never abandon our shared goal of bringing broadband into every rural American home.
Jonathan Spalter is the president and CEO of USTelecom, a telecommunications industry trade association representing broadband service providers, manufacturers and suppliers in the world of internet-based communications and entertainment.
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