To Close the Digital Divide, Congress Must Care About All Americans

A decade ago, I played a small role in the National Broadband Plan as a young staffer in the Federal Communications Commission’s Office of Legislative Affairs. That plan was mandated by Congress and had the stated mission “to create a high performance America — a more productive, creative, efficient America in which affordable broadband is available everywhere and everyone has the means and skills to use valuable broadband applications.”

If the coronavirus pandemic has taught the technology and communications policy world anything, it is that policymakers have utterly failed to meet the mission of the National Broadband Plan. According to the FCC’s most recent data, 26 percent of those in rural areas don’t have access to broadband. Less than half have access in our tribal communities. Even in our urban centers, studies show that many low-income neighborhoods can be overlooked by broadband providers for upgrades to their network or access to high-speed broadband, while still paying similar prices for substandard access.

Of course, all communities (rural and urban) have low-income households that must choose between paying for food or connecting to essential communications for their family. Recent proposals for the coronavirus relief packages and upcoming congressional hearings show that Congress has learned this lesson during the pandemic. What policymakers have not learned is why they failed to accomplish this mission in the first place.

Although the National Broadband Plan provided a road map and initially tracked progress, we have seen a relatively nonpartisan tech policy space abandon consensus views on the technicalities of the network and the importance of universal service principles. Urban and rural communities alike cry out about the essential need for affordable high-speed broadband, but in Washington only words and half measures are provided as solutions.

Over the last 10 years, the FCC’s major subsidy program to deploy broadband, the Universal Service Fund, has remained tethered to the provision of phone service and inaccurate mapping data about who is and is not connected. Questions about whether broadband is an essential service and if the FCC should have authority to promote open, secure and affordable broadband to everyone have been debated in the FCC, in Congress and in the courts — without resolution.

Fortunately, local leaders grasped the need for broadband years ago. In the time since Congress enacted the National Broadband Plan, local leaders have risen to the challenge, investing in regional partnerships for broadband infrastructure and engaging in cost-sharing arrangements with providers. They’ve also studied and supported utility co-ops that include broadband, and even built their own municipal broadband networks to connect their citizens.

To match the local deployment efforts, some localities have developed digital equity plans to bring together citizens with industry to ensure that communities can benefit from open, secure, and affordable networks when they are deployed. Some parts of the country have benefited from these local efforts, yet millions more reside in states where industry lobbyists have pushed through laws that prohibit local initiatives. Additionally, not all communities can afford the expensive cost of broadband infrastructure. In the end, only the federal government has the resources to support broadband for all, with no community left behind with 20th century networks.

It is time for voters in red America and blue America to see that they are in the same place when it comes to broadband, and demand that their elected officials take action to connect each of us. We all benefit when every school, home and business connects to essential broadband networks. As we watch Washington return to this understanding in its policy conversations, we must demand that both the conversations and the proposed policies reflect the universal need in the country.

Hearings dominated by industry are missing the voice of main street businesses and citizens from both urban and rural areas. Broadband providers are key stakeholders in this conversation, but their fear of higher expectations and accountability by the federal government needs to be tempered by having all voices at the table. Panels and stakeholder discussions that do not reflect the diversity of our country do a disservice to every community in showing how connectivity is important to each of us, even though the challenge each community faces looks slightly different.

Some, like Sen. Ed Markey (D-Mass.), have suggested it is time to revisit or renew the National Broadband plan. This is not a bad idea, but any revisit or renewal of a plan to connect all Americans should have the values of equity and universal access at the center of the technical and economic discussions of how to ensure networks are open, secure, and affordable. If the novel coronavirus hasn’t made plain to your member of Congress that broadband is essential for communities to learn, work and thrive, then we are in danger of discussing the need for a third National Broadband Plan a decade from now. Policymakers must agree that if one of us cannot connect, then Congress has failed all of us.

Chris Lewis is the president and CEO of Public Knowledge.

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