May 16, 2022
For more than a century, USTelecom’s member companies have worked to connect communities across this country. Universal connectivity has always been our north star, and today it is within reach. From the federal government to state and local policymakers, broadband companies to community groups, more and more we are locking arms and working together—combining resources, expertise and on-the-ground know-how—to not only ensure everyone has access to broadband networks but also the ability to take full advantage of all that high-speed connectivity makes possible.
Broadband is an essential service to everyone. And, by ‘everyone,’ we mean everyone. Every last home and business. Every last school and hospital. Every last person in this country. For our member companies, anything short of an all-out pursuit of universal connectivity runs counter not only to our business interests, but to the community values that have defined and united our industry for decades.
We know this commitment is widely shared. Achieving our collective goal of a fully connected nation will require unprecedented teamwork. It begins with a shared understanding of the true barriers we must all help overcome to get the job done. Here are several ways we can work together to translate shared ideals into constructive and results-oriented action.
- Complete the physical infrastructure. According to the FCC, a full 98% of the country has access to high-speed internet networks. But the job gets harder the closer we get to 100 percent. Remaining unserved and underserved areas are typically remote and sparsely populated, making the economics of deployment upside down. Fortunately, the recent infrastructure bill commits billions of federal dollars, alongside the $80 billion broadband companies invested in 2020 alone, to help close this funding gap. Progress can be further accelerated if state and local policymakers are able to fast track the many procedural barriers to specific infrastructure work (the most common roadblocks are identified here). This can help broadband companies and their community partners push projects over the finish line in as timely a manner as possible.
- Make the Affordable Connectivity Program permanent. The good news? Amid inflationary pressures across virtually every corner of our economy, broadband prices are holding steady and even declining. This, however, doesn’t negate the need for a concerted effort to help ensure low-income Americans can afford this essential modern service. More than 1,300 broadband companies are participating in the Affordable Connectivity Program, which offers consumer subsidies that make broadband free or very low cost for those living near or below the poverty line. Much like food and housing assistance, our nation should commit resources to ensuring broadband has a permanent place in the modern social safety net.
- Educate our seniors. The digital divide isn’t solely one of access and affordability. For our parents and grandparents, it is often also one of understanding. Research clearly shows that even if you remove deployment barriers and make low- or no-cost service available, millions of seniors still avoid these connections. They may not be aware programs exist to help them. They may overestimate the complexity of getting connected. They may be intimidated by what a telehealth video conference or family Zoom might entail. There are many disparate programs here and there to help. But the federal infrastructure bill also makes available billions of dollars for what can and must be a far more concerted and organized effort to leave no one behind.
- Update the Universal Service Fund. Broadband is not ‘set it and forget it’ technology. Even more than roads and bridges, it requires continual maintenance and upgrades—whether that’s to respond to a natural disaster, guard against cyberattacks or simply add capacity to accommodate the growing bandwidth needs of our people and our economy. The Universal Service Fund was created 25 years ago, largely to ensure everyone had access to telephone service. Today, it must be retooled to focus squarely on ensuring strong, reliable broadband in every community. Chief among the tasks, asking all broadband companies along with those now global internet platforms and services that financially benefit the most from access to our nation’s networks —not just telephone companies—to contribute to the sustainable funding of this national commitment.
- Facilitate equal access. Congress has asked the FCC to launch a proceeding to facilitate equal access to broadband by, in part, prohibiting intentional digital discrimination based on race or other factors that are plainly illegal and directly counterproductive to our shared goal of internet for all. Implementing Congress’ mandate in a manner that ensures all Americans have equal access and that broadband innovators can continue to invest with confidence is a critical FCC responsibility. We support the Commission’s goal and will actively engage in this proceeding to get the process right and keep moving forward toward our shared objective of internet for all.
Nobody said the road to internet for all would be easy, but if we all put our shoulders to the wheel, we can translate the idealism of our words into the connected reality of our communities. As for broadband companies, we are in it to the end. Can’t stop. Won’t stop. Until the job is done.
Jonathan Spalter is the President and CEO of USTelecom – The Broadband Association.