A decade ago, Congress mandated a national plan to connect the third of Americans still lacking fast internet connections.
Now, with renewed appreciation of broadband’s importance and an incoming president committed to closing digital divides, it’s time for a new federal plan.
Unlike the 2010 version, which aimed to stimulate construction and remove regulatory hurdles, the 2021 plan should include a different mix of subsidies and regulatory reforms to complete the mission.
Given that momentum, Washington’s Legislature should be reticent about spending heavily on broadband, especially given its limited regulatory authority.
The country is much closer to connecting everyone. Data and mapping are squishy, but 2019 federal estimates were that 85.7% of households nationally and 84.9% in Washington had wired, high-speed connections.
A three-part challenge remains: Connect the rest, which is generally remote and vastly more expensive to wire; improve quality, which isn’t adequate in many areas; and increase affordability, since many can’t afford broadband even if it’s available and when existing subsidies fall short.
All manner of government programs are working on these problems. Many billions are being spent by federal and state governments, including some pandemic-relief dollars. Companies are also spending heavily to extend and speed networks, but not everywhere, and they may take decades to finish in remote areas.
If nothing else, President-elect Joe Biden has an opportunity to organize these efforts into a cohesive national strategy, with new performance standards and deadlines.
The strategy should accelerate universal broadband service, through a variety of providers and technologies that increase competition, improve quality and moderate prices.
Many steps have been taken this way, such as a 2016 update of the universal phone service program to support “lifeline” broadband for low-income households.
But instead of bending last century’s phone and cable TV regulations to accommodate broadband, rewrite them to reflect the centrality of broadband, now the primary platform for delivering TV and phone service.
Regulatory reforms are needed to advance universal service without simply spending more or solidifying the dominance of big providers.
Reforms “need to be clear the money should be going to serve the unserved … it has to be spelled out in the legislation,” said Betty Buckley, Washington Independent Telecommunications Association executive director, whose members serve a fifth of the state’s rural area.
Otherwise there’s a risk federal dollars could be redirected to upgrade service in areas that are already wired or more profitable to serve.
Buckley’s situation illustrates the complexity. Extending fast broadband to her Eastern Washington ranch home would cost $1.6 million. That won’t happen, so bridging her digital divide requires something more reasonable, perhaps new technology like low-orbit satellite broadband.
In denser areas, local governments should have more broadband authority, so they can require providers using their right of way to provide low-cost service as needed. They have authority over cable TV but not broadband, even though both use the same cables.
So Seattle gets cable companies to support public TV channels few watch, but can’t require fast, affordable broadband for everyone in its franchise area.
Washington’s Utilities and Transportation Commission is doing horse trading. It has limited broadband authority but attaches service requirements to telecommunication grants.
Resourcefulness is great. But instead of a patchwork of workarounds, we need a new federal broadband plan, delegating authority while raising standards for quality and coverage.
One way or another, massive federal spending on broadband seems likely. House Democrats introduced a $100 billion broadband plan, and such investments could be part of an upcoming recovery package.
Locally, I’ve heard of state proposals to spend $100 million to $500 million on broadband, prompted largely by the pandemic. But that’s a costly bandage to only partly cover a wound that should heal soon.
Legislators should focus on getting all students safely back in school, instead of spending to prolong the misery and tragic inequity of remote learning.
That may sound harsh. Connecting students has been critical during the pandemic. Schools, the state and companies like T-Mobile US and Amazon have done amazing work to cobble together connections.
But that crisis should be fading before the Legislature finishes its budget.
Meanwhile, the state underfunds special education, counselors and its backlog of school construction needs. Some students’ homes still lack electricity, running water and indoor plumbing, which are truly essential.
I like the take of state Sen. Reuven Carlyle, who told me he favors positioning Washington to receive the maximum amount of federal broadband funding.
There remains pressure to increase spending, with uncertain outcomes and minimal regulation. The telecommunications industry is a powerful lobby and generous campaign donor.
Recall what happened when the Federal Communications Commission pursued “light touch” regulation in 2015, classifying broadband as a utility subject to the Telecommunications Act of 1996.
That net neutrality measure passed with overwhelming public support. But it was litigated, then promptly repealed after President Donald Trump took office and appointed a former Verizon lawyer, Ajit Pai, as FCC chairman.
When I made my argument for aggressive regulatory reform to Pai’s predecessor, Tom Wheeler, he said collaboration is needed: Like it or not, the best chance of getting a broadband package through Congress is to have the telecom lobby’s support.
Wheeler, now a Brookings Institution fellow, wants the country to go big and connect virtually everyone in one swoop, funding future-proof fiber broadband to as many homes and businesses as possible. Once that’s paid for, end the perpetual trickle of grants that has failed to provide necessary service.
During Wheeler’s FCC term, the agency estimated it would cost $80 billion to connect all Americans.
That no longer seems exorbitant, especially after trillion-dollar relief bills.
Broadband has proven to make the country more resilient. It’s a cornerstone of the recovery and widening economic opportunity, as premier jobs disperse from metro areas.
Getting everyone wired where it’s reasonable, and serving the rest with emerging technologies, should be part of America’s big push to rebuild and reconnect in 2021. Most everyone wants it to happen.
But the country needs a new plan, regulatory reform and more coordination to get it done quickly, efficiently and well.