Now is the Time to Connect Rural America to Broadband

A broadband connection has become an essential lifeline, especially during COVID for our shuttered offices, schools, places of worship, and retail stores. For many, a digital connection has become the safest and most timely way to seek medical attention, continue education, assist customers, and check-in with friends and loved ones.

95% of American homes have ways to access a broadband connection today – a result of the nearly $2 trillion in investment over the last two decades that flowed from a pro-competition, light-touch regulatory approach. That’s good news.

The bad news is that in rural America, 22 percent of homes lack access to a fixed broadband connection at the FCC minimum 25/3 Mbps speed because it’s too expensive to build in these sparsely populated communities.  That puts rural America at a distinct economic disadvantage to the rest of the country.  And that’s wrong.

Past efforts to get at this problem have fallen short both because they failed to focus on unserved areas and because outdated rules often locked out some of the most cost-effective solutions.

Much like the challenges of rural electrification, it will take an all hands-on deck approach and the right policy framework to wire rural America with broadband.

The recently passed CARES Act included more than $300 million for rural broadband and telehealth services. The Rural Digital Opportunity Fund (RDOF)  — the FCC’s next step in bridging the digital divide — will direct up to $20.4 billion over ten years to finance up to gigabit speed broadband networks in unserved rural areas, connecting millions of American homes and businesses to digital opportunity.

The Connect America Fund (CAF) — part of the Universal Service High-Cost program — is an FCC program designed to expand access to voice and broadband services for areas where they are unavailable. In the CAF Phase II, the FCC will provide funding to service providers to subsidize the cost of building network infrastructure in census blocks where internet service is lacking.

But these programs can only succeed if we learn from the mistakes of the past and instead focus on building out in unserved areas and removing anti-competitive red tape.

These buildout programs often mandate nearly three-decade-old eligibility requirements that were initially designed to ensure that companies who sought federal funding could get the job done.  But today, these eligible telecommunications carrier (ETC) requirements, are doing the opposite – they are screening out some of the most able-bodied competitors and slowing down progress.

Rather than defining one set of federal eligibility requirements, the current ETC rules allow states to set up a patchwork of pet projects – poorly defined Green New Deal requirements, forcing broadband builders to serve as back-up electrical utilities, and other collateral projects — that data has shown have nothing to do with universal buildout in rural America.   Many of the most experienced broadband companies simply don’t participate as a result.

To cut the mountains of red tape and speed up broadband expansion to those Americans most in need, Rep G. K. Butterfield (D-NC) introduced the Expanding Opportunities for Broadband Deployment Act.  This bill will create one standard to ensure the best companies are competing under the same rules nationwide. This is likely to spur competition, which will in turn mean lower costs and better results for taxpayers and rural Americans.

If we want meaningful results in connecting rural America to broadband, Congress should pass the Butterfield legislation and retire the patchwork ETC process that is holding back progress.

One national, pro-competition standard is just what we need to get better and more cost-effective solutions to the table, and to finally make real progress in solving the lack of broadband in rural America problem.

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