In November, voters across the country shattered turnout records that come January will produce a major shift in political power on Capitol Hill. The question is whether it also will produce the meaningful, bipartisan results our families and communities expect, and our voters demand.
Campaign rhetoric notwithstanding, there is one policy item the new Congress should tackle immediately that bridges the divides that define our times: broadband connectivity.
Broadband is crucial to our economy and our global digital leadership. Not only did the broadband industry invest approximately $76 billion in 2017 — an investment in their own networks and the economic potential of the communities they connect — broadband companies also employ 760,000 workers with paychecks 42 percent above the American average.
Just as Wall Street has combined the “information technology” and “telecommunications” categories into one “communications services” category, recognizing all companies operating online are part of a single ecosystem, legislators should take a similar approach to innovation policy by considering the entire internet community when making policy and regulation choices.
And a 21st century broadband policy that gets more Americans connected is the surest path to tackling many of our nation’s most pressing policy priorities.
Here are the top three items on the Congressional 2019 broadband to-do list:
After two years of much legislative lip service, there is broad agreement that major investment in our national infrastructure is long overdue. This investment must include not only strengthening our bridges and roads but a commitment to broadband deployment in unserved areas of the country.
Broadband companies are doing their part, having invested more in our nation’s digital infrastructure than the federal government spent to build our interstate highway system and put a man on the moon — combined. The private sector is ready to work with the federal government on making the most of that investment.
Most legislators understand that connecting every American will take a partnership between the private and public sectors. And each “infrastructure week” held over the last two years has reminded us of the importance of having broadband as a key component within any infrastructure bill.
What we need: A muscular, serious infrastructure bill that narrows the digital divide, supports broadband deployment, modernizes networks and gets more Americans connected to the internet. Any infrastructure bill should future-proof new infrastructure with fiber capabilities so new technology can be integrated and modified as years go by. Smart, connected solutions should be an integral part of every mile of American infrastructure constructed or reconstructed in the coming years.
Consumers across the political spectrum expect and deserve strong internet privacy protections. Internet users should be certain that sharing images, exchanging messages, visiting websites, engaging in commerce and sending sensitive data are the types of acts the entire internet ecosystem is obligated to respect and protect.
Equally important to consumers are strong and enforceable open internet protections, which broadband providers have long supported. This means an open internet without blocking, throttling, and anticompetitive paid prioritization that delivers consumers the content and services they expect. Rather than 50 states stepping in with their own conflicting open internet solutions, Congress should step up with a national framework for the whole internet ecosystem and resolve this issue once and for all.
The No. 1 source of consumer complaints to the Federal Communications Commission — illegal robocalls — remains a thorn in the side of Americans as their phones ring off the hook. USTelecom is working to root out illegal calls that scam consumers though our Industry Traceback Group. But we need Congress’ help to restore the caller ID framework and enhance the enforcement efforts — both civil and criminal — of the FCC, Federal Trade Comission and Department of Justice.
What we need: Congress to lead the effort to bolster digital privacy with a framework that includes effective security, ample consumer choice and flexibility, and reliable notifications when breaches occur – also applied uniformly to all companies operating on the internet, whether they exist on the edge or core of our networks, in the cloud or as platforms.
Voters overwhelmingly cited the rising cost of health care as a top concern in the midterms. Broadband-supported telehealth solutions can be a game changer for Americans in rural areas, with the potential to make regular check-ups, chronic care, and even treatment for opioid addiction more accessible and more affordable across the country.
Over the last two years, the FCC and the Department of Agriculture have helped integrate broadband into our nation’s healthcare system. Those agencies have boosted funding to the Rural Health Care Program and implemented grants to connect rural communities. Legislators should amplify those efforts and build on these early successes.
What we need: Policies that recognize — and facilitate — the critical role broadband plays in delivering cutting edge healthcare solutions to Americans in communities of all sizes.
It has been 22 years since the Telecommunications Act of 1996 was passed. Instead of scratching our heads trying to figure out how the internet fits into a decades-old regulatory construct, let’s put our heads together and raise our sights to the broadband future. And our new Congress is the right place to start.
Jonathan Spalter is president and CEO of USTelecom – The Broadband Association.
Note: This piece originally appeared as an op-ed in Morning Consult. You can view it here.