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Opinion

Want to Close the Digital Divide? Build Smarter

When conjuring an image of rural America, with its rolling farmland and rugged expanse, the term “overbuilding” rarely comes to mind.

Yet when it comes to broadband access in rural communities, including many right here in the Midwest, overbuilding has become a threat to the shared goal of linking all Americans to the opportunities of a connected, digital world.

You may be asking yourself, isn’t more always better when it comes to closing the digital divide? As the COO of a local broadband provider, I know the answer isn’t so simple. Steering scarce federal funding to multiple companies seeking to serve the same area, some with little proven expertise in deploying broadband networks, can be a costly misstep. Such poor planning siphons off urgently needed funding from truly unserved, hard-to-reach pockets of this state and our nation.  

In a 2018 spending bill, Congress made $600 million available for broadband deployment to America’s rural areas through a Rural Utilities Service pilot program. This funding is a welcome addition to the growing arsenal now aimed squarely at connecting rural Americans once and for all. Too often, however, these finite resources have been squandered on overbuilds — duplicative construction — rather than helping finish the job of connecting the nation by focusing first on truly unserved areas. We saw this all too well in 2009 when millions of dollars were squandered in the federal stimulus program.

That’s why we and our many rural allies are working to remind federal policymakers about the real community impact of prioritizing connectivity in unserved areas and the need to work diligently to avoid taxpayer-financed overbuilding. This will ensure as many Americans as possible can be brought online through the program.  

Another smart move? Use funding from this pilot program to serve areas not otherwise eligible for aid through existing programs like the Federal Communications Commission’s High Cost and Remote Areas Funds, intended to bring service to many of the hardest-to-reach portions of the United States. This could include “last mile” grants to the parts of our country that are so costly to serve, broadband providers simply cannot justify the expense. The program should be neutral — not favoring any one technology or venture over another — in order to maximize the effectiveness of the program.

A recently released joint report by USTelecom and NTCA, examines the economics of deploying and operating rural infrastructure, and highlights the need for constructive federal support.

Despite the $1.6 trillion broadband providers have privately invested in infrastructure over the last 20 years, when you deploy expensive infrastructure across a vast geographic area with a small potential customer base, the private sector simply can’t go it alone.

As the report details, this economic reality necessitates solutions that unite the public and private sectors to finish the job of building a truly connected nation.

Luckily, a number of federal government programs already exist and can be enhanced to accelerate rural connectivity to unserved America, chief among them the Connect America Fund. The Midwest was a big winner in the fund’s most recent auction. Indiana will see over 24,000 households and businesses gain broadband access through just over $29 million in federal funding. Illinois will gain 32,000 locations though $100 million of federal support and Ohio will gain 6,500 locations through over $13 million in federal investment. These are essential, robust and proven mechanisms for closing the digital divide.

As of this year, we now live in a world where a majority of the planet will be connected. Yet here in the strongest economy on earth, 3.5 million American households remain at risk of being left behind.  

In a strapped budget climate, our rural communities simply can’t afford wasteful overbuilding of broadband infrastructure. Instead, federal agencies must work in a coordinated way to ensure that tax dollars are stretched to their full potential, reaching the households that need it most and finishing the job of building a truly connected nation.


Greg Jarman is chief operating officer at Watch Communications
and Benton Ridge Telephone Company, which provides broadband to small and rural markets throughout Ohio, Indiana, and Illinois.

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