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Community Networks 6 May 2021

Risks and Rewards of the U.S. Broadband Funding Boom

Mark Buell
By Mark BuellRegional Vice President - North America
Katie Jordan
Katie JordanFormer Director, Public Policy and Technology

The COVID-19 pandemic has taught us once and for all that broadband access is critical infrastructure. Without it, communities cannot work, learn, or earn online – a necessity during stay-at-home orders. And policymakers are taking notice. In the past few months, trillions of dollars have been proposed by the House, Senate, and White House for expanding access to broadband in the U.S.

These proposals – ranging from specific COVID relief to broad infrastructure plans – are an opportunity for infrastructure investment not seen in the U.S. since President Roosevelt’s New Deal in the 1930s. If these funds are allocated properly and thoughtfully, we could reach digital equity in the United States in the next decade. This possibility cannot be understated – it is a huge opportunity for communities across the country to get online.

However, there is an equally great risk that these funds do more harm than good. This kind of investment is once in a generation for a reason and whatever happens next, it is unlikely we will see investment of this kind into broadband infrastructure and access again. With funding of this size, companies and individuals with malintent are going to come out of the woodwork. Large corporations could receive huge amounts of funding, but as we’ve seen for years, this doesn’t always trickle down to connecting communities. We also risk wasting funds by putting steep requirements on communities for spending. Small communities may receive an influx of cash and have to spend it too quickly to make sustainable investments.

Even if none of those risks are realized, an even greater issue looms – we don’t know which communities currently have access to the Internet and which do not. The Federal Communications Commission’s (FCC) broadband maps are notoriously inaccurate. And while it has made efforts in recent months to begin to update these maps, an overhaul is not likely until 2022. If federal broadband funding begins rolling out in 2021, many communities that are currently unserved but don’t appear on the FCC’s maps may not be able to access the much-needed funding.

Communities desperately need these funds, and we applaud policymakers’ intentions. However, we have one shot to get this right, and we need to move quickly but cautiously.  Below we outline a few of the largest policy proposals for broadband access and how they could impact communities as examples.

American Rescue Plan

Similar to the CARES Act, this COVID stimulus provides billions for broadband service, connected devices, training and technical assistance, and other critically needed broadband benefits. It also specifically allocates funds to Tribal communities, which is an important step. Overall, it’s a good step in the right direction and will go a long way to help communities. However, in keeping with the 2020 Indigenous Connectivity Summit Policy Recommendations, it should have included additional support for community engagement and training, without which funds may not have the intended impact.

Accessible, Affordable Internet for All Act (AAIA Act)

We’re pretty blown away by this plan. It is packed full of great initiatives to expand broadband access to all Americans. It also closely follows the 2020 Indigenous Connectivity Summit Policy Recommendations, which would help ensure the networks built with this funding serve communities. The AAIA Act creates a nationwide regulatory environment that would enable community networks, giving power to localities and increasing competition. It would create a new agency – NTIA’s Office of Internet Connectivity and Growth – that would, among other things, connect with communities to improve digital inclusion, hold regional workshops to share best practices, and develop broadband development training. (That sure sounds like another connectivity initiative we know of…)

This program takes a great step forward by calling for digital equity, not just digital inclusion. It also specifically provides funds to “Indian tribes, Alaska Native entities, and Native Hawaiian organizations,” which is an important specification to ensure all Native communities are eligible for funding.

Critically, it also requires the FCC to adopt rules to collect data from service providers regarding the price of broadband, service plans and subscription rates, and data on resiliency. This kind of mapping initiative will help us to better understand what communities are  un- or underserved so that we can solve connectivity problems where they exist.

American Jobs Plan

Most importantly, President Biden’s infrastructure plan elevates broadband to the level it deserves – alongside other critical utilities. Broadband access is a core tenant of this plan, and that should be celebrated in itself. The American Jobs Plan would create major investment in infrastructure and affordability – about $2 trillion over the next ten years. It isn’t hyperbole to say that, if passed, this bill could close the digital divide in the United States.

It does a lot of things right. It prioritizes broadband networks owned, operated, or affiliated with local governments, nonprofits, and cooperatives. It ensures funds are set aside for infrastructure on Tribal lands and that Tribal Nations are consulted in program administration. The plan specifically aims to “empower rural regions [including Tribal Nations] by supporting locally-led planning and capacity building efforts” and to create next-generation training programs. While it includes subsidies for broadband subscriptions, it makes it clear that that is a bandaid fix rather than a long-term solution, which is geared towards building sustainable, affordable infrastructure.  All of these aspects are strongly in line with the 2020 Indigenous Connectivity Summit Policy Recommendations.

We need to acknowledge that $2 trillion is a lot of money to pump into the economy. We need to ensure that this funding goes to the communities who need it most, that grantors work closely with communities to meet those needs, and that tight accountability measurements are in place so outside entities don’t intake funds and output subpar connectivity.

The next 3 steps for closing the digital divide in the U.S.

These plans are critical steps towards digital equity in the United States, and if done right, they could close the digital divide. However, we need to proceed cautiously.

First and foremost, the FCC, Congress, local government, community groups, and existing service providers need to work together to create accurate broadband maps. Without an understanding of where broadband infrastructure actually exists, we won’t know which communities lack access to the Internet and which are served.

Secondly, policymakers need to work closely with communities and local organizations to ensure funding reaches the communities who need it most. They should prioritize working with community, municipal, and locally owned networks who are best positioned to ensure community broadband needs are met.

Lastly, training and digital education are essential to ensure that once a community has access to the Internet, its residents can use the resources online.

This is an extraordinary opportunity for communities across the country. Let’s make sure we work together to get it right.


Image by Jan Huber via Unsplash

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Disclaimer: Viewpoints expressed in this post are those of the author and may or may not reflect official Internet Society positions.

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