Just as everyone needs access to electricity and clean water, so too they have a right to reliable telephone service and high-speed internet. As a former commissioner at the Federal Communications Commission and California Public Utilities Commission, I’ve spent much of my career working to expand these critical communications services to everyone. However, even in 2019, far too many people in rural communities are still stuck on the wrong side of the Digital Divide, having little or no reliable access to the internet.
This week, FCC Chairman Ajit Pai said that he intends to bring up a proposed decision to approve the merger of Sprint and T-Mobile. He cites as a key public benefit the companies’ commitment to upgrade the 5G wireless network and other voluntary commitments, including keeping current rates for three years, bringing broadband service to rural households, and divesting Boost Mobile.
I urge the Department of Justice to also act in favor of the merger. To quote the FCC chairman, we should seize this opportunity to “speed up the deployment of 5G throughout the United States and bring much faster mobile broadband to rural Americans.”
Here are the critical details: In their joint public interest statement to the FCC, T-Mobile and Sprint propose to combine their three types of wireless spectrum, cell sites and towers to create a state-of-the-art nationwide 5G network by the end of 2023 — providing a faster network than either company can offer independently. In sworn testimony before Congress, the companies asserted the new 5G network will have three times the total capacity and speeds four-to-six times faster than either standalone company could provide. Additionally, nearly two-thirds of the U.S. population would be able to access speeds greater than 100 Mbps by 2021. By 2024, they project that number to reach nearly 90 percent. For those of us who labor in the policy trenches trying to encourage reluctant broadband providers to bring fast internet to every hill and dale, this promise is a major game changer for the nation’s rural and agricultural economies.
Should the merger be approved and New T-Mobile deliver on its rural coverage promise, the Digital Divide essentially would close in many rural communities across the United States. The additional coverage would provide an economic stimulus for rural residents, the local shops that support them, and farmers seeking access to the technologies needed to sustain their businesses.
That’s why the California Emerging Technology Fund, a nonprofit established a decade ago by the CPUC to close the Digital Divide, recently struck an agreement with T-Mobile regarding its proposed California operations. Importantly, T-Mobile has agreed to independent verification by a third-party engineering firm that it will deliver on the coverage promises it is making to California regulators in the companies’ transfer applications. T-Mobile also has made commitments to expand affordable Lifeline programs, infrastructure to improve rural emergency response and digital literacy programs.
Now, more than ever, reliable internet access is critical to success and a better quality of life. High-speed internet is a “must have” for libraries, K-12 schools, universities, health clinics, and other anchor institutions to fully serve their communities and reach the most vulnerable populations. Employers and colleges generally only accept digital applications, many government services require online enrollment and homework often requires getting on the internet from home. Without internet access, many Americans are being deprived of accessing opportunities. As an example, a study by the National Center for Educational Statistics shows students from households without internet access have lower assessment scores in reading, math and science. The homework gap, the inability to complete online assignments at home, is a steep barrier to their academic achievement and long-term success.
In the coming year, I also urge the FCC and Congress to take immediate action to bring internet to all Americans, including supporting improved broadband mapping and new funding for broadband build-out projects. Private sector investment—including that promised by the New T-Mobile in its proposed merger – should be encouraged, as well as public investment where necessary. Every American has the right to access the benefits of the Information Age.
Rachelle Chong, a former FCC and California PUC commissioner, currently serves as special counsel to California Emerging Technology Fund and is a SHLB Executive Board member and California Asian Chamber of Commerce Board member.
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