Jonathan Spalter

State of Our Broadband Union

When the president enters the U.S. Capitol on Tuesday evening to deliver his first State of the Union, topics that draw consensus will likely be few and far between.  Among the rare issues that unites this partisan town is infrastructure—the idea of putting women and men to work in communities across the country to literally build the future of our nation.

Traditionally this has meant massive public works projects—roads and highways, ports and bridges.  But even at this nascent stage, the current legislative effort is one for the history books.  With the exception of 2009’s American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, an emergency stimulus package designed to help lift the nation from the Great Recession, the most essential modern infrastructure has been excluded from these big legislative pushes—until now.

From the administration’s earliest statements on the subject to Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer’s blueprint released last year to the whopping 25 related bills now making their way through the House Energy and Commerce Committee, Washington has caught up to the connected times—and not a moment too soon.  Our leaders are acknowledging in their proposals the

Since the earliest days of the internet—as we sought to rise above the grating honk and screech of early dial-up service—expanding and upgrading the nation’s broadband networks has been a largely private sector endeavor.  America’s internet service providers have invested more than $1.6 trillion over the past 20 years in building out U.S. digital infrastructure.  Even adjusted for inflation, that’s more than our nation committed in public dollars to put a man on the moon and build the interstate highway system—combined.

So why commit limited public funds to the cause now?

Because we risk leaving some 3.5 million U.S. households behind.

The private investment model works well in reasonably populous areas—from cities to suburbs to mid-size and even smaller towns.  But the business case breaks down when the average $27,000 cost per mile of laying fiber must be spread across only a handful of users.

This is the quandary in the most remote corners of our country.  This includes the nearly 200 communities in Alaska that don’t have road access and rely instead on planes, barges and snow machines for food and supplies, and broadband for just about everything else.

Broadband companies want to make these connections.  But they need a partner.  That partner should be all of us.  Our nation has a proud history of connecting everyone to opportunity and progress through infrastructure—from electricity, to safe, running water, to telephones and highways.  Modern broadband is different as a private sector-led infrastructure push.  But government should lean in to help connect the last, remaining high-cost deployment areas.

When it comes to broadband, this grand aspiration is within striking distance—if the strong commitment of the private sector is joined by the resolve and resources of the federal government.

In the race to connect all Americans, there can be no question that new and direct public funding is needed to supplement private investment.  In terms of large infrastructure packages, broadband is ‘the new kid on the block.’  Care must be taken to ensure its share of limited public resources are in a special infrastructure class that doesn’t leave these essential funds vulnerable.

In terms of putting these resources to use, we should double down on the smart deployment of existing programs we know can work. FCC Chairman Ajit Pai has proposed $500 million in new funding for the portion of the universal service program focused on serving high-cost (i.e. remote rural) areas.  If fully funded, this would be a promising crack in the wall between the digital haves and have nots in this country.

While there is no sidestepping a substantial commitment of public funds to truly bridge the rural gap, these efforts can be deftly boosted without spending an additional dime by creating a stable, streamlined regulatory environment. Earlier this month, the president signed an executive order to expedite federal permitting, so internet service providers can build infrastructure in rural areas faster. Continuing these efforts—and rolling back outdated regulations—can substantially reduce the cost of deployment—allowing limited public and private resources to stretch further.

Left unaddressed, lack of access to information will deepen the growing rift of opportunity in our country, leaving many Americans behind in a thriving digital economy. This increasing reliance on 1s and 0s is all the evidence one needs to determine that broadband deserves a seat of honor at the infrastructure table.  As the president steps to the podium on Tuesday evening, this is the rare issue worthy of galvanizing everyone in the room.  Rural Americans are our fellow Americans, and too many are waiting for high-speed connectivity.  It’s high time our nation’s leaders link arms with the nation’s broadband providers to finish the job.