As every recovery program will tell you, the first step to solving any problem is defining and acknowledging it. So what is “it”? Our nation suffers from a severe problem resulting from decades of monopoly control over our telecommunications and data infrastructure—notably, the internet—from the modern day Ma Bells. This monopoly control has resulted in expensive access and content bundles and lousy customer service driven by a lack of competition; socio-economically determined access to the internet which effectively blocks our poorer children from learning and opportunity; “information deserts” with little or no access to the internet at all; and duplicative infrastructure spend that has not even given communities the foundation they need for the future. Once we appropriately define the problem, we can acknowledge that it’s not limited to rural communities, and “Broadband” is not the solution.
The onset of COVID-19 has trained a spotlight on the inadequacy of this monopoly model where Americans struggle with slow, unstable, or even non-existent internet access to productively work from home, attend school remotely, engage and maintain virtual relationships, and spend holidays “with” family or friends via zoom etc. In light of this struggle, we’re witnessing renewed energy and promises from the Federal Government to find a solution to the so-called “rural broadband” problem, including proposals to shower 80-100 billion dollars to entrench an outdated model.
Unfortunately, this is a serious misdiagnosis of the problem in multiple aspects. First, the problem is not limited to “rural” America. And second, the dearth of “broadband” connections is not the entire issue.
While the Government should certainly help deeply rural communities obtain the access they need, defining the overall problem as one of “rural broadband” access ignores the reality that many suburban and urban communities, with greater numbers of Black and Brown residents, suffer from the same issues. These less-advantaged urban and suburban communities have been substantially impacted by COVID intersecting with their lack of access to affordable internet services. Pre-pandemic, students without adequate home internet were often forced to sit in the McDonald’s parking lot at night because that was the only place they could access free wifi in order to complete and submit their homework. Mid-pandemic, where many schools have gone hybrid or fully virtual, these children now cannot attend classes because they lack sufficient connectivity and therefore access to video conferencing such as Zoom, Microsoft Teams, and Google Classroom. This “digital divide” is crushing access to education, and runs the risk of creating a generational “opportunity divide” excluding a generation of children from the American dream. This is simply unacceptable and is not remotely an exclusively rural problem.
The emphasis on “rural broadband” misses potentially the most important long-term issue. For valuable reasons, policy makers are focusing on the immediate issue of lack of internet access. However, delivering ultra-fast connectivity at an affordable price in a socially equitable manner in all of our American communities is just the table stakes. The larger necessity we’re entirely failing to look at is that the vast preponderance of communities are also in dire need of modernized community water systems, responsible energy and smart grid solutions, transportation and mobility solutions, and other “secure smart cities” applications. The foundation to modernizing and interconnecting all this critical community infrastructure is extensive community fiber.
It’s also worth noting that even if the problem was simply one of internet access, “broadband” is certainly not the solution. The recent RDOF funding program, and the preliminary rural broadband funding plans from the new administration, operate on the basis of the FCC definition of adequate internet connectivity: 25 megabits of download speed over 3 megabits of upload speed (25/3mbps). This threshold for determining if a community has adequate information access is so woefully outdated as to be meaningless in the current world of remote work, remote education, and distributed healthcare.
In our rush to do “something” tangible and immediate, we have misdiagnosed the problem and have therefore mischaracterized the solution. As a result, we risk wasting tens of billions of dollars of economic resources at a time when we simply don’t have that luxury. As a nation we already face a cumulative, deferred infrastructure need of $5-8 Trillion. Far worse though, we risk wasting a decade of precious time building the wrong infrastructure to meet outdated standards, exclusively focused on “rural” America. There is a better way.
As a nation, if we are willing to engage with the complexity of this issue, we can establish a new paradigm: we build open access, multi-purpose fiber networks that can achieve both the table stakes of ultra-fast connectivity, and provide the foundation upon which our communities can develop and modernize the other critical community infrastructure they require for a vibrant and healthy future.
The dearth of “Rural Broadband” isn’t the entirety of the problem we need to solve. The real problem is the necessity for a new American Information Infrastructure, built and operated in an open access, competitive, and efficient market to serve multiple purposes, for all American communities, and for all Americans within our communities. Now that we’ve properly articulated the challenge, let’s begin.