How the 116th Congress Could Close the Digital Divide
December 03, 2018


Invest in Broadband "To and Through" Community Anchor Institutions

By John Windhausen Jr.

The 116th Congress has a golden opportunity to solve the digital divide, by including broadband funding in upcoming infrastructure legislation. President Trump, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, and prospective Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi have all said that investment in infrastructure is an area that they can agree on in the next year.

In the last few years, Congress has enacted piecemeal broadband funding programs primarily focused on getting rural, residential customers online. But our broadband deficit impairs communities and institutions all across America – in inner-city and suburban neighborhoods, as well as in rural markets. To solve the digital divide and address the homework gap across the entire country, Congressional broadband legislation should focus on an often ignored sector: community anchor institutions (CAIs).

Schools, libraries, hospitals, health clinics, public housing, community colleges, and other institutions that serve the public are often neglected by commercial broadband providers, who focus on either business or residential consumers.  CAI needs for high-capacity bandwidth are not only growing exponentially, they are vitally important to ensure that broadband benefits everyone. Anchor institutions often serve as the gateway to the community, providing public, high-speed Internet access, wireless service hot spots, and digital literacy training to help less affluent people get online.  

The U.S. National Broadband Plan Goal #4 called for anchor institutions to have gigabit capacity by the year 2020 – a well-intentioned goal that we are unlikely to reach by relying on market forces alone.  A Brookings Institute study shows that America is suffering “digital distress” because of a lack of broadband deployment and use. Public investment in broadband deployment to community anchor institutions can be a cost-effective strategy to make sure that every community in America has high-speed connectivity.

SHLB’s “To and Through” Approach Is a Fiscally-Prudent Strategy to Solve the Digital Divide

The SHLB Coalition is preparing to develop our own legislation that aims to address CAI connectivity needs, and simultaneously close the digital divide for all. Our “To and Through” approach recommends deploying high-speed broadband that can be shared by CAIs, the surrounding community, and other broadband providers to make the entire network more economically viable. CAIs provide “jumping off” points for pushing broadband deployment to surrounding residential and business customers. A cost study SHLB commissioned earlier this year found that connecting all anchor institutions to broadband would put 95 percent of residential consumers within reach of a strong Internet connection.

Making “To and Through” happen begins with connecting every anchor institution to scalable, high-quality broadband. SHLB’s cost study found that connecting remaining CAIs in the continental U.S. and Hawaii will cost between $13 billion and $19 billion, but that doesn’t mean the federal government needs to pick up the whole tab. Federal funding should be matched with investments from state and local governments, and promote public-private partnerships where feasible. Congress must do more than simply throw money at the issue; it must develop a holistic strategy that encourages investment by commercial and non-commercial entities alike.

Here are a few principles that should guide Congress’ broadband policies:

  • Technology-neutral: Local communities should make the decisions about what services, providers, and technologies best suit their unique situation, whether it be a traditional fiber build or high-speed wireless technology.

  • Balance Upfront Capital Investment and Ongoing Funding: While some areas can be sustainably funded with upfront capital investment, the most remote regions will require a mix of upfront capital and ongoing funding to support network operations.

  • Encourage Network Sharing: Congress should only fund network providers who agree to make their networks open to interconnection and shared use at affordable prices, so that they can serve as platforms for extending wired or wireless service to unserved areas.

  • Community Support, Training and Devices: Closing the digital divide entails more than simply building networks. Legislation should plan for community outreach, provide resources to promote digital literacy training, lower the monthly costs of broadband to affordable levels and make devices affordable for low-income people. Public libraries and other community-based organizations can facilitate digital literacy training and low-cost wireless services.

  • Forward-looking and Scalable: However Congress chooses to invest, it should avoid technologies that will quickly become obsolete. Funding should focus on building “future-proof” networks that are scalable and will provide the foundation for telemedicine and educational needs for decades to come.

  • Mapping: Congress should provide funding to improve broadband mapping practices, so that they produce granular maps showing both wireless and wireline availability. Such maps could be used to target investment to areas that need it most.

It’s 2018. Everyone should have broadband access. Let’s work with Congress to ensure that by 2020, we can look at Goal #4 in the U.S. National Broadband Plan and call it a success.

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