Jonathan Spalter

Answering the Call for Rural Broadband

Time-tested programs should serve as a model for new initiatives

By Jonathan Spalter and Shirley Bloomfield

This week, the House Energy and Commerce Committee will kick off a debate on legislation to modernize America’s infrastructure for the future. We are encouraged the emerging conversation in Washington is shaping up to include what is as essential to American competitiveness as roads, bridges, and energy systems: broadband.

In fact, broadband providers across the country have consistently urged Congress to move forward swiftly to provide the critical resources necessary to ensure our nation’s broadband infrastructure can reach every unserved American family, community, and enterprise — especially those in our rural areas.

Legislative proposals like the LIFT America Act recently reintroduced by the House Energy and Commerce Committee chairman, Rep. Frank Pallone (D-N.J.), build upon other measures managed by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, as well as the Trump administration regarding new spectrum auctions and the new Rural Digital Opportunity Fund. These efforts collectively represent a significant leap forward in our nation’s work to overcome the digital divide and, if well-coordinated, they should help make the business case for investment in, and ongoing operation of, future-proof networks in deeply rural areas.

Rural Broadband Drives Growth

Why is this debate especially important to rural America?

Innovative broadband providers in the rural areas of our country drive economic growth for their communities by giving farmers that rely on the internet better tools for more efficient production through precision agriculture and better access to markets for their goods.

Thanks to the efforts of these entrepreneurial broadband providers, Main Street businesses participate in our global marketplace and provide services that bring untold economic benefits to their small communities. And more students who live in some of the most rural and remote parts of our country now have access to online learning tools, helping to close the so-called homework gap.

But our job is not done.

Unfortunately, there is simply no business case for investment in many rural areas without more effective public-private partnerships. That is why recent efforts in Washington to target funding and bridge broadband gaps in rural America are so important.

As with many policymaking matters, however, the devil truly is in the details.

USF Can Serve as a Guide

We believe that any funding dedicated to the buildout of rural broadband must be allocated carefully, to ensure federal dollars are spent efficiently and leverage private investment. Rather than creating new programs out of whole cloth, we encourage Congress to look to existing federal programs with proven track records, like the FCC’s Universal Service Fund, as it considers how to distribute additional direct funding resources.

Most importantly, all federal agencies with a shared mission of promoting universal access to broadband must coordinate to ensure programs are working in concert, so that federal resources are used to deploy and sustain networks, and to prevent duplication of efforts.

Broadband is the infrastructure challenge of the 21st century. When allocating resources to bridge our country’s digital divide, however, we have a message to Congress: Use programs that have stood the test of time to invest in technologies that can stand the test of time.

Shirley Bloomfield is CEO of NTCA–The Rural Broadband Association. Jonathan Spalter is president and CEO of USTelecom–The Broadband Association.

Note: This article originally appeared as an op-ed in Multichannel News. You can view it here.