Jonathan Spalter

Concrete Steps Towards Closing the Digital Divide

Ensuring that all Americans can access the opportunities made possible by broadband internet access service is one of the great challenges facing the U.S. today. One way to think about that challenge is to break it into two parts.  First, how do we ensure that broadband networks are upgraded fast enough to keep up with carrying all the traffic that consumers demand? Between the increased bandwidth needs of consumers using Netflix, Amazon and other streaming video services, increased usage of telemedicine and corporate video conferencing services, the demand for broadband internet access continues to grow unabated. According to Cisco’s annual Visual Networking Index Complete Forecast, IP traffic in the U.S. is expected to increase about 2 ½ times by 2021 to 85 exabytes/month.

Second, how do we get broadband networks extended to those who don’t currently have them because of extremely high costs of providing service in sparsely populated or remote rural areas? The Federal Communications Commission’s Connect America Fund is focused on those communities, but there’s not enough public funding to expand access to all of the unserved rural areas without it. Providing new service in unserved or upgrading older equipment requires significant investments by broadband service providers.

Upgrading means deploying more fiber and IP technologies and turning off old services and networks that don’t meet modern needs. Actions by the FCC today to streamline the process for doing this, by removing and streamlining unnecessary regulations, will increase incentives for companies to invest in the latest technologies to bring consumers the best broadband service available.

The regulatory changes approved by the FCC today represent a major victory for anyone who wants to close the digital divide and see all Americans connected to broadband internet service.

In a report and order on “Accelerating Wireline Broadband Deployment,” the FCC adopted several changes to obscure rules on network change disclosures, pole attachment procedures and the process for retiring old copper-wire networks which will make it significantly easier for telecom companies to upgrade to new network technologies and expand services into unserved areas.

Most of these under-the-hood changes won’t be noticed by consumers, but they could cumulatively have a significant impact on the improved availability of broadband service in the U.S. because they’ll make it easier for providers to upgrade or expand their networks.

Those reforms include common-sense actions like adopting a 180-day shot-clock for resolving access issues on telephone poles, reducing the waiting period to retire copper lines after a public notice to 90 days and allowing providers to retire old equipment in areas where no customers are being served after a 15-day notice.

These changes are extremely important to broadband providers. Every dollar spent maintaining an old network is a dollar that can’t be spent on new IP-based networks that offer the sort of high-speed internet services that businesses and consumers demand.

While most Americans have access to several wired or wireless broadband options, rural households and businesses aren’t always as fortunate. Making sure all Americans can access the educational, social and economic opportunities unleashed by broadband internet access is critical to the future of our country. We need federal policies that encourage more investment in networks. The actions taken by the FCC today are a positive step in the right direction: more broadband for more Americans.