Opinion

Using the White House’s Approach to COVID to Amplify Infrastructure Policy

The COVID-19 pandemic underscored the criticality of connectivity for Americans to work from home, for students to be able to learn remotely and for folks in need of health care to access telehealth services. It was a lifeline to the outside world when we were unable to leave our homes. It is no surprise then that this critical infrastructure is what the Biden administration turns to after quick legislative action to deal with the COVID crisis.

On his first full day in office, President Joe Biden signed the “Ensuring a Data-Driven Response to COVID-19 and Future High-Consequence Public Health Threats” executive order. This was the first step toward fulfilling his campaign promise to lead with “science and truth” in his administration’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Now, as the president and congressional leaders attempt to navigate a multibillion-dollar infrastructure package through Congress, the same “science and truth” approach could help ensure that the American Jobs Plan does what it is intended to do.

For example, having a truer picture of broadband deployment and competition could help the United States address the connectivity crisis in a more targeted way. Congressional leaders along with the Biden administration have proposed a bold package to inject government-led internet competition into suburban America and deploy robust broadband to rural America, much like the work done to rapidly deploy vaccines to combat the COVID crisis.

In sizing the problem, the White House must utilize good data to evaluate the status of broadband in the United States. However, while there are a wide variety of competitive providers and technologies utilized to deploy broadband today, current White House fact sheets only recognize some of those. For example, in a fact sheet supporting the administration’s plan for Ohio, it states that by one definition 6.2 percent of Ohioans do not have acceptable internet, and 58 percent have only one option. That statistic includes two technologies: cable and fiber. It leaves out several others — including fixed wireless, which the Federal Communications Commission reports can deliver that same quality internet. When including fixed wireless, only 3.2 percent of Ohioans are unserved, and 43 percent have only one option for internet. Getting a more accurate picture of the competitive landscape will allow funds to be targeted more accurately, and aimed at those who truly need help the most.

Leaving out existing and successful technologies in the broadband marketplace makes no more sense than evaluating COVID vaccination success by utilizing only the Pfizer and J&J vaccines and leaving all Americans vaccinated with Moderna out of the equation.

To end the COVID pandemic, we need all vaccines in arms as fast as possible. Broadband is no different. All technologies need to be in play in closing the connectivity gap. Truly data-driven and inclusive approaches to legislative policy will include multiple technologies that are well-suited to deliver robust and affordable broadband to all Americans. Our association’s members are deploying a variety of technologies — from cable, to fiber, to fixed wireless — daily to connect more Americans. Artificially constraining that solution set will negatively impact the broadband landscape, as well as the choices and prices for service ultimately available to the American consumer.

Excluding fixed wireless would ignore the tens of billions of dollars invested in fixed wireless networks in the past decade. It would also give short shrift to innovative work, like a recent public-private partnership in Allendale, S.C. There, a number of fixed wireless equipment vendors, partnering with a state-owned TV tower and driven forward by state regulatory staff, deployed high-speed broadband to 1,000 households in just 61 days. House Majority Whip Jim Clyburn (D-S.C.) applauded the project, noting “If people tell me ‘Wait on 5G,’ and we ain’t got no G, I don’t want to talk to them … Give me what Gs I can get now. I’ll get to 5G later on.” We couldn’t agree more.

My suggestion: Follow a “science and truth” approach to broadband policy. Be inclusive and solutions-oriented. We put together what this could look like in our Path to Gigabit proposal, an innovation-based solution to our connectivity challenges. This will ensure that infrastructure legislation truly makes a positive impact, resulting in more American jobs and better, more affordable connectivity for all American consumers.

 

Claude Aiken is WISPA’s president and CEO.

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