The Broadband Blueprint: Connect Your Town to the Future
By Chip Pickering
It’s hard to get where you are going if you don’t know how to get there. I hear that a lot from mayors and local city officials who desperately want to connect their communities to better broadband. The kind that is faster, more affordable and closes the digital divide for millions of families stuck in urban deserts and rural dead zones.
America has learned some hard truths during the COVID-19 pandemic. Our work, our schools and our lives have changed. For most of us, but tragically not all, the internet has been a beacon of hope. Access to the internet is just as essential as water and power, and not nearly as ubiquitously available.
The networks we have today, simply cannot, and will not support the economy of the future — even if many Americans’ bandwidth was stretched to the max by Zoom meetings, we are nowhere near ready for self-driving vehicles, drone delivery and telemedicine. Internet infrastructure is central to our recovery efforts, especially for small businesses struggling to survive.
To help move to this better broadband future, INCOMPAS — the internet and competitive networks association — is pushing for bold goals and offering concrete directions on how to get there.
In our new paper, Broadband Blueprint: How to Achieve Universal Availability authored by Angie Kronenberg, our Chief Advocate and General Counsel, we strongly support calls for $100 billion in new funding from Congress and offer six important steps to help state and local policy makers access these funds, speed deployment and better attract new private investment.
In Congress, Democratic Whip Rep. James Clyburn (D-SC) has led the charge for $100 billion in broadband funding, and that number has recently received bipartisan support from former Florida Governor Jeb Bush.
But we need local leaders engaged in this fight too. The streaming revolution has fundamentally changed the market for broadband deployment. Demand for more affordable internet service like cloud, music and over-the-top video has brought new fiber builders into the marketplace.
And here is the amazing news — new gigabit speed fiber is both faster and costs consumers less. This is why we have advocated for policy makers to act with all deliberate speed, to increase broadband speed benchmarks from the current, sluggish 25 Mbps of last century, to a modern 1 Gigabit speed standard that will shape our future.
Plus, true fiber density is mandatory for real 5G coverage — not that marketing gimmicky 5G sold by cell phone companies — but the kind of networks that support advanced manufacturing, healthcare and homeland security platforms. Small cells and wireless towers don’t work without fiber. Plus, we also need to open the door to innovative last mile solutions such as white spaces and OpenRAN technology that better utilize spectrum.
When we match internet innovators with forward looking local leaders, we see creative solutions. In Los Angeles for example, Mayor Garcetti worked with Starry and Microsoft to bring wi-fi to 9,000 public housing residents.
To help, here are the six steps offered in the INCOMPAS Broadband Blueprint paper for states, cities, towns, counties and all local communities who want to access federal funding and attract new private investment — actions that bring more competition and economic opportunity while bridging the digital divide and closing the homework gap.
First, Add networks, not fees: A federal infusion of broadband funding benefits the entire community and public support should come from general funds. Adding new fees and taxes on some online services or competitive fiber providers, and not others, will unfairly skew the marketplace. As we have seen, demand for creative content and innovative internet services is saving consumers’ money and drives network growth.
Second, Streamline deployment: INCOMPAS has long championed smart local deployment policy — from dig once to one-touch-make ready. Transparent and streamlined deployment approval processes and reasonable cost based rights of way fees are critical. Policy makers should modify the Communications Act to provide all broadband providers the rights and protections afforded to incumbent/legacy telecommunications and cable operators who have access to poles, conduit and rights of way.
Third, Internet for All: Funding should be targeted to areas where it is needed most. No community should be left behind. To that end, investing where infrastructure is needed in unserved and underserved areas should be prioritized. Moreover, cross-agency coordination of funding for broadband deployment programs should be adopted in order to avoid duplicative funding of networks and cover as many Americans as possible.
Fourth, Better data/maps: Our infrastructure dollars must be based on reliable and verifiable maps. Millions of Americans are being ignored and left behind by fake coverage maps. Enough. The FCC must improve maps by incorporating third-party data and Congress just passed the Broadband DATA Act to improve the accuracy. Real information will help bring real competition and make sure every American has coverage.
Fifth, Competition for funding: Reverse auctions have brought benefits and saved taxpayers money. They should be embraced to close the broadband availability gap. Broadband monopolies and duopolies have punished consumers with terrible customer service, slow speeds and higher prices. They are also a drag on a community’s ability to add networks that help small businesses. No one provider should ever be favored, funding should be technology neutral to encourage innovation, and positive weighting or business credits for higher speeds will strengthen any government investment, providing short-term benefits and encouraging investment in scalable, long-term benefits.
Six, Future proof networks: As the FCC finalizes its rule to implement the Secure and Trusted Communications Networks Act, it should explicitly allow wireless providers to use reimbursement funds to “future proof” their networks by purchasing OpenRAN-compatible equipment. With the FCC’s recent findings that replacing certain Chinese-made equipment will cost at least $1.84 billion, this moment presents a critical opportunity to secure and widen our mobile network supply chain through the more cost-effective OpenRAN model.
We believe these smart steps will help bring about a new era for broadband access. Working together, we have the opportunity to right the wrongs of the past and build a better tomorrow. Connecting each and every American to gigabit speed services may seem like a lofty goal, but it’s necessary. Because one thing is clear, the future can’t wait.