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Put broadband first for rural Americans

01.16.2018

This oped by USTelecom CEO Jonathan Spalter was originally published in The Hill on January 15, 2018.

At the American Farm Bureau convention on Monday, Jan. 8, President Trump sent his clearest signal yet that his administration is prioritizing rural Americans and their access to broadband connectivity, ensuring they don’t get left behind in the accelerating transition to a global, digital economy.

In his remarks, the president touted a new report from the U.S. Department of Agriculture which outlines key pillars — from workforce and economic development to improved quality-of-life — that promote the prosperity of our rural communities.

Holding up each of these pillars, according to the USDA, will be a solid and growing foundation of fast and reliable internet access.

This isn’t the first time that a White House has declared the deployment of rural broadband a national priority. What is yet to be determined is the concrete action — via congressional legislation, an improved regulatory environment and federal funding to critical programs — they will follow through on to ensure that every American has access to broadband, no matter where they live.

Over the past 20 years, broadband service has shifted decisively from the “want” to the “need” column, becoming an essential component to our national infrastructure. Just as safe, modern bridges and water systems carry traffic into cities or water into homes, so too does broadband carry opportunity into rural communities as a modern and essential function of a prosperous nation.

Here in our nation’s capital, lack of connectivity would be inconceivable to residents who rely on broadband to support nearly every aspect of their lives — from securing transportation, an education, housing and employment to connecting with friends, family and colleagues. But for too many Americans living or working on our ranches and along our mountain valleys, our forests, tundra and plains, the promise and potential that connectivity can bring still remain elusive.

This connectivity gap is particularly concerning when it’s understood what exactly is at stake. For small, remote communities, access to broadband is a lifeline — connecting residents to everything from innovative online education and cutting-edge e-Health services, to new customers in the global online marketplace.

As rural communities adopt and use broadband services, incomes go up and unemployment falls. And while it is estimated that more than 5 million rural students will be pursuing online degrees by 2020, 21 percent of schools in rural areas still lack a fiber connection. By the end of this decade, there could be 45,000 fewer rural doctors, making the need for connected care even more critical.

Make no mistake: solving this 21st century challenge and closing the digital divide will be the cornerstone to rural America’s successful transition to the global, digital economy.  But unlike water pipes and steel bridges that can last 50-100 years, our modern broadband networks require near constant — and always costly — upgrades and improvements.

Private investment from our nation’s broadband providers has placed them among the leading investors in the U.S. economy, putting more than $1.6 trillion of their own capital on the line to upgrade and expand the nation’s digital infrastructure since 1996. As a result, over the past 10 years broadband in rural homes has risen 117 percent.

Small, rural broadband providers are on the front lines of this effort, sharing a deep commitment to the communities in which they live and serve. It was often their grandparents who first connected their hometowns via telephone lines, and today they are doing the same for next gen services like broadband. Beyond the service they provide, their very existence is critical; our small rural broadband providers support nearly 70,000 jobs and over $100 billion in commerce in 2015.

Despite these efforts, there is more work to be done. The FCC estimated in 2017 that to deploy high-speed broadband to 98 percent of American homes, it would cost $40 billion. For 100 percent, the cost doubles. Which is why greater broadband infrastructure funding — both public and private — is urgently needed in remote areas, where the cost of connectivity infrastructure remains extreme.

By adopting a “broadband first,” approach, the administration’s new report is encouraging — from easing federal permitting in remote communities to including broadband in its definition of infrastructure in an August 2017 executive order.

Beyond this, we need to continue to move forward with bipartisan congressional action to ensure sustainable and direct federal funding set asides to support rural broadband deployment, to reduce regulatory barriers, and to incentivize more private investment. Encouraging the smart deployment of existing and new federal funds will also be an essential part of any permanent solution.

Broadband providers stand ready to work with government to improve and support existing programs like the Universal Service Fund, and to develop creative new technology and financing solutions to better serve these communities. This includes fixed wireless options and progress on deploying a range of broadband speeds — even as providers work toward their ultimate commitment of ensuring the fastest speeds available. Perhaps most fundamentally important is to level the regulatory playing field by ensuring that all companies that interact with Americans through the internet are treated fairly and equitably.

Ultimately, the answer to the rural connectivity equation won’t be red or blue, it will be finding the right policy framework to ensure the 1’s and 0’s that comprise our nation’s digital infrastructure can keep pace with consumer demand. All Americans should be inspired that our government, alongside our nation’s broadband innovators, is finding new pathways to deliver on the promise that broadband can bring to rural communities.