Broadband for America’s Future Starts with Anchors
November 11, 2019


Broadband for America's Future ReportBy John Windhausen, executive director, SHLB Coalition

Despite the chorus of voices proclaiming the importance of closing the digital divide, an estimated 162 million Americans lack high-quality broadband. In the 21st century, this reality is simply unacceptable. The Federal Communications Commission adopted the ambitious National Broadband Plan in 2010, laying out a policy framework meant to end the connectivity gap over the decade. With the 2010’s ending in a few weeks, it’s time for policymakers to refresh their approach to digital equity. 

Last month, the Benton Institute for Broadband and Society launched “Broadband for America’s Future: A Vision for the 2020’s” to re-invigorate the effort to close the digital divide in the next decade. The report synthesizes broadband learnings from communities, public-interest advocates, government officials, and industry experts to form a national broadband agenda. Four key building blocks anchor the agenda: advancing broadband deployment, promoting broadband competition, ensuring affordability and adoption, and supporting community anchor institutions. 

Report author and Benton Fellow Jonathan Sallet previewed its policy recommendations for community anchor institution (CAI) connectivity at the 9th Annual SHLB Conference. Sallet identified the SHLB Coalition’s “To and Through” philosophy as a fundamental principle for CAI broadband policy. To put it simply, connecting anchors to high-quality broadband enables them to serve as jumping off points to extend connectivity to surrounding residents and businesses in the community. 

The Benton report compiles case studies illustrating the real-world effectiveness of “To and Through”:  

  • Merit Network, a nonprofit organization governed by Michigan’s universities, operates nearly 4,000 miles of fiber-optic infrastructure, connecting all anchor institutions in the state. Recognizing that 368,000 rural Michigan homes lack broadband, Merit has started the Michigan Moonshot project to better understand how it can leverage its fiber network to end the digital divide in rural communities. 

  • Southern California’s Imperial County left its antiquated telecom provider behind to form the Imperial Valley Telecommunications Authority (IVTA), which partnered with the local power and water utilities to create a fiber-optic communications network. IVTA not only connects 30 CAIs, but also brings wireless internet to students beyond the campus in 11 underserved communities. 

  • Kent County, an agricultural county on Maryland’s Eastern Shore, contracted with a private sector company to deploy fiber to all the anchor institutions, and then built out off that backbone to deploy fiber to the home. Residential consumers were thrilled to upgrade from DSL to gigabit connectivity in a matter of months.

Unfortunately, some of the dialogue around closing the digital divide focuses on connecting residents and businesses, while completely ignoring the needs of CAIs. “Broadband for America’s Future” recognizes that connectivity for anchor institutions isn’t simply a goal of broadband deployment, but a necessary step in closing the digital divide. The report clearly shows we will not solve the digital divide unless policymakers and industry acknowledge the valuable role schools, libraries, and healthcare providers play in making broadband available and affordable to their surrounding communities. Learn more about the Benton Institute and read the full text of the report here.

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