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Let’s Close the Digital Divide

10.23.2017

By Darby McCarty, CEO of Smithville Communications Inc. (USTelecom member)

There are very few things that unites Washington these days, but the need for more and better broadband service is among them. The desire to ensure all Americans have equal access to the life-changing opportunities enabled by high-speed broadband access is something that we can all agree on.

Rural America is a fertile ground of innovation, but some areas lack the connectivity that’s so vital in the 21st century, when homes are becoming smarter, tractors rely on GPS and cars may soon be able to drive themselves. So far this year, both Democrats and Republicans have expressed support for ensuring we close the digital divide which has isolated some rural and suburban communities from the economic, educational and social opportunities that high-speed broadband can provide.

Federal Communications Commission Chairman Ajit Pai has made closing this digital divide the signature issue and he’s expected to talk about it during an event in Indianapolis this month with AOL founder Steve Case, whose venture firm is devoted to funding startups around the U.S.

There aren’t any easy or inexpensive solutions.

My company, Smithville Communications Inc., knows that better than most. We’ve been providing telecommunications services in southern Indiana since 1922 and we’re the largest independent privately-held telecom company in the state. Earlier this summer, we broke ground on a $500,000 project to provide gigabit service in Ellettsville and it will connect more than 450 homes in four neighborhoods.

This project is in addition to a $90-million effort by Smithville Communications Inc. to expand high-speed internet access in the southern part of the state. Right now, we currently have more than 2,500 miles of fiber throughout southern Indiana. The expansion is something we’ve been working on for years, because expanding high-speed broadband service isn’t cheap and it isn’t done overnight.

Providing high-speed broadband service to rural communities can be challenging because the population is so relatively low it can be hard to recoup building or operational costs to run the network. That’s one reason why Congress, years ago, developed the Universal Service Fund, which helps offset the cost of providing telecommunications services in areas where it doesn’t make economic sense to offer service. A few years ago, the FCC agreed to let providers use USF funds to offer broadband, not just phone service.

Right now in Washington, lawmakers are discussing an infrastructure plan which could provide much-needed funding for broadband infrastructure in rural areas.

To maximize the impact, funding should first focus on areas without access to broadband, like too many parts of our state, since those areas are the most expensive to serve. Funding could also be used to upgrade current networks to provide faster service to residents who have slower broadband connections right now. Officials like Chairman Pai could also streamline regulations, such as expedited permitting or limiting pole attachment fees, which can delay projects and increase costs.  

It’s encouraging that leaders like Chairman Pai get it. Closing the digital divide and making sure all Americans have access to high-speed broadband is a worthy goal. We need leaders who can put their differences aside and work across the aisle to ensure that Americans, from coast-to-coast, have access to the opportunities that broadband internet access opens up.