An Open Application Process is the Way to Build Better Broadband February 07, 2017
BY JOHN WINDHAUSEN
Who would have guessed that the election of President Donald Trump would ignite a bonfire about broadband? On January 17, the FCC’s Paul de Sa released a thoughtful paper estimating that it would cost $80 B to deploy high-speed broadband to every home in America, but “only” $40 B to get to 98% of homes. Senate Democrats then released their “Blueprint to Rebuild America’s Infrastructure” on January 24 calling for $20 B in broadband spending. Two days later, USTelecom held a nice event at the National Press Club called “Broadband First”, where it suggested running all future broadband funding through the “tried and true” Connect America Fund. Then on February 1, the Senate and House Broadband Caucuses collaborated on a bi-partisan, bi-cameral event to make the case for including broadband funding in upcoming infrastructure legislation. Incoming Chair of the House Telecom Subcommittee -- Marsha Blackburn (R.-TN) -- interviewed on CNN -- also called on the Trump Administration to support broadband funding. And Congressmen Huffman, Pocan and Nolan just introduced their “New Deal Rural Broadband Act.”
What are we to make of all this buzz about broadband? Of course, there is a great need for high-speed Internet access, and those that do not have it are falling further behind. And even those who have low-speed broadband today need more bandwidth. This is especially true of schools, libraries, health clinics and other anchor institutions, whose demand for broadband capacity generally doubles every 18 months. Online learning, job-training videos, and remote telemedicine all demand greater and greater bandwidth. According to EducationSuperhighway, 11.6 million students in 19,000 schools still lack access to adequate broadband, and the homework gap means that 5 million households have students that cannot go online to finish their homework assignments.
The SHLB Coalition shares the goals of these political and industry leaders in promoting broadband investment. There is a danger, however, that the traditional broadband industry could be jumping on the broadband bandwagon early in order to steer the funding their way.
Policy-makers, however, should recognize that the broadband market functions best when the process is open to a variety of players and business models. In fact, that was the process used successfully by NTIA in administering the the Broadband Technology Opportunities Program (BTOP), which funded a variety of commercial and non-profit providers using wireless and fiber to connect over 25,000 community anchor institutions. These grant recipients built sustainable, future-proof networks, and they now have over 800 interconnection agreements with commercial providers. One economic study estimated that these BTOP investments generated over 22,000 long-term jobs and $1 Billion in household income.
The SHLB Coalition has offered our own proposal to Congress that would focus on deploying high-capacity broadband to and through anchor institutions to the surrounding rural community. Our “Rural American Broadband Connectivity” (Rural ABC) plan is fiscally prudent, promotes “dig once” and streamlined infrastructure policies, and is intended to ensure that high-speed broadband is available for public use in every single American community. Most importantly, it calls for a variety of financial mechanisms (including tax credits, grants and loans) and an open application process. Internet2 has also released an significant paper that documents the important role of the research and education networks in connecting anchor institutions.
Broadband is not just infrastructure - it is a “meta-infrastructure” that improves our education, health, access to information and quality of life. Let’s hope the next round of broadband investments recognizes the diversity of the broadband marketplace and allows for an open application process that is not skewed toward one set of market participants.