The challenges of this prolonged pandemic have caused all of us to think again about what we value most — connections with family and friends, a reliable job, health and safety — and technologies that make it all possible. Unfortunately, when it comes to accessing critical technologies, especially high-performance broadband internet service, not all Americans have the same experiences. This pandemic has shined a bright spotlight on the fact that we still need to connect all Americans with the best possible broadband, no matter whether they live in urban or rural areas or upper or lower-income neighborhoods.
The problem is that too many have a shortsighted view of what “the best broadband” means. To some, it means “just good enough” – speeds or latency that may appear okay today but will fall short tomorrow. This myopic view makes no sense when you’re investing in networks meant to last for 10 or 20 years.
To the members of our associations, “the best broadband” means a connection that meets the needs of families and businesses for years to come and whenever the next crisis hits. It means a network where upstream and downstream speeds are equally important. We are way past the days when internet just meant watching your favorite Netflix show. In today’s world, we can even more clearly see that broadband must simultaneously promote remote learning, support a connection to the office through a virtual private network and enable consulting with a doctor many miles away through a video call.
For these reasons, we need to aim higher and do better — and we cannot afford to resign rural or lower-income Americans to second-class service. Not everyone will get the best broadband right away, but we should not adopt policies and programs that aim for “just good enough” speeds today. We should not see “technological neutrality” become a codeword for awarding “soccer trophies” when it comes to broadband goals. We should not put ourselves in the position where, when another crisis arises, we’re wondering yet again why people don’t have robust and reliable connections at home. Instead, we need to drive investment in broadband infrastructure that will provide the kinds of performance consumers will want and need for years and even decades to come.
That means driving more investment in fiber — the fundamental communications infrastructure for the 21st xentury. The 5G race is on, but it goes nowhere without fiber. The speeds and capacity expected of 5G require densification of networks, significant fiber fronthaul and backhaul to accommodate such increased demand, and fiber to connect small cell sites. So far, the reviews are mixed at best, with 5G-enabled mobile devices inconsistently delivering “next generation” speeds. More spectrum could help, but what is really needed to fix this? More fiber.
More than a year ago, our organizations introduced a “Fiber Fast Plan” as a complement to Federal Communications Commission Chairman Ajit Pai’s 5G FAST Plan, and we noted the essential nature of fiber to achieve both national 5G goals and broader connectivity needs in rural America. Today, the components of that plan — chief among them providing predictable and sufficient funding for fiber investment in rural areas where there is no business case for deployment and in lower-income areas where residents may not be able to foot the bill — still ring true.
Let us learn from the past and not repeat mistakes. In 2011, the FCC adopted a Connect America Fund plan that aimed for 4/1 Mbps speeds. A few years later, it updated that goal to 10/1 Mbps — and even that update looks antiquated in 2020. In any future programs to fund broadband deployment, we need to avoid short-sighted attempts to invest in technologies that look cheaper to deploy now but will deliver materially lower performance that won’t keep pace with customer demand. Needing to rebuild networks over and over again is simply a waste of limited government funds. The smart money doesn’t approach any other long-term infrastructure investment this way, so why would we take an incremental approach when it comes to broadband?
Our members, collectively representing more than 1,000 community-based and small business broadband providers who live and work in the communities they serve, are focused on delivering future-proof connectivity for the next generations, and we believe Congress should join us in supporting fiber-based solutions wherever possible. Let’s build it right the first time so that all Americans have the connectivity they need now and well into the future.
Shirley Bloomfield is chief executive officer of NTCA – The Rural Broadband Association, which represents nearly 850 independent, community-based telecommunications companies across rural America. Lisa R. Youngers is the president and CEO of the Fiber Broadband Association, the largest and only trade association in the Americas dedicated to the pursuit of all-fiber-optic network infrastructure to the home, to the business and to everywhere.
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