Over the past several months, Americans have faced significant challenges due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Incredible economic stress and unknowns about the virus have been taxing and the road back has been challenging. One source of consistency for many has been the ability to move much of life online. Indeed, the protracted stay-at-home period has led to massive spikes in demand for broadband access, usage of all forms of communications tools has surged and it seems daily, new ways of connecting in real time during the pandemic are surfacing.
And the crisis has brought to the fore just how critical broadband access is for everyone in our country. For years, legislators in Washington have talked about the best way to ensure all Americans have access to broadband services. Now, on the national level, leaders have a unique opportunity to implement policies that will propel not only America’s economic recovery, but also finally accomplish that long-sought goal. They should seize the opportunity.
Businesses – big and small – are finding ways to operate online in order to stay afloat during the pandemic. Not only are most Americans working from home, they are also turning to online shopping and delivery, which requires reliable connectivity. And by all accounts, America’s digital networks are performing beyond expectations — enabling remote learning, our essential services to be provided and businesses to keep operating.
Broadband service during the pandemic has been significantly better in the United States than other countries around the world who are also struggling with the pandemic and extended lockdowns. This is, in large part, due to billions and billions of dollars of investment from the private sector into the communications sector for years, more than $1.7 trillion since 1996. However, this period has also served as a reminder that there are still people in our country who are unserved.
To that end, Congress must seize the opportunity and take swift action with smart policy. Congress has an important role to play in fast-tracking broadband mapping so we can see who is truly unserved. This process will inform where additional investment should flow.
If, following thorough broadband mapping, policymakers decide to set aside government funding for remote localities, they should promote the types of public-private partnerships that have led to the strong and resilient networks that we have today.
And finally, while analyzing immediate steps to take, Congress must carefully consider what could hinder our progress towards American recovery. One thing we should not do is replicate policies that have proven to depress investment in critical infrastructure. We need to enable U.S. businesses to continue to do what they do best: innovate and compete. We should not, for example, revert to public utility regulation of broadband and wireless, which is backward-looking and burdensome, causing carriers to pull back.
It is the strength of the American spirit and the foundation that our country has built that is helping us to weather this pandemic. And crises like the COVID-19 pandemic have a way of focusing the mind on critical infrastructure that we simply cannot live without.
To shore up that infrastructure, we will need even more private-sector investment – hundreds of billions more – to continually invest in the upgrades and network expansions our economy and citizens demand. We will also need new thinking and bold ideas on how the country can finally bring high speed communications networks to the last few places in America without them. Now is the time for less talk and more action, and we must ensure that no one is shut out of the economic recovery our country is about to experience.
Chris Christie served as the 55th governor of New Jersey.
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