Jonathan Spalter

What it takes to connect rural America

When Democratic candidates take the podium Thursday night, one thread will run through every priority mentioned. From health care and education to national security and jobs, much of our nation’s future will be built around the strength and reliability of U.S. broadband networks and their ability to link every American to the opportunities of a connected world.

Roughly 60 million citizens live in rural communities. Yet the term “rural” was uttered on just one of the four evenings so far during the Democratic primary debates. “Internet” and “broadband” have yet to notch a single mention.

Everyone pays public tribute to this shared national aspiration, but we need to hear more details from candidates at all levels (and from all political viewpoints) about how they plan to achieve this goal. U.S. broadband companies have invested $1.7 trillion building, expanding and upgrading the nation’s high-speed internet infrastructure. That’s more than Uncle Sam invested to put a man on the moon and build the interstate highway system—combined.

As a result, in cities, suburbs and many rural communities, connectivity today is fast, affordable and ubiquitous. Over the past decade, rural broadband access has risen more than 70 percent. 

As we stretch to the final frontier of service – our most remote and sparsely populated rural areas – broadband companies need a partner. We have one in the federal government.

Led by the Federal Communications Commission’s Connect America Fund, many of our broadband companies are working shoulder-to-shoulder with government to bring broadband to hard-to-reach communities — overcoming challenging distances, terrain and economics. This collective effort has connected 5.7 million rural Americans to high-speed broadband in just over three years.

The FCC’s Rural Digital Opportunity Fund aims to provide $20 billion in essential funding over 10 years to push deeper into unserved areas. The cornerstone for this monumental effort must be a precise measure not just of where high-speed broadband reaches today in America, but where it does not. Believe it or not, in 2019 our nation lacks such a comprehensive connectivity map.

USTelecom recently completed a pilot program, conducted in rural Virginia and Missouri, that demonstrated the ability to harness big data to provide more visibility into the number and location of homes and businesses that remain outside the lines of our broadband economy.

We found a margin of error up to 38 percent on the current federal methodology. In human terms, that’s 445,000 homes inaccurately marked served in the two pilot states. We also found one in four unserved locations were misplaced on maps by more than a football field’s length. That’s a big difference as companies seek to price out the cost of laying fiber to these locations.

Government partners have stepped up, as well. This week the House joined the Senate in considering legislation to embrace modern mapping tools before committing precious and finite public dollars to ensure every unserved home and business is seen – and ultimately served – by the companies with the expertise, the technology, the financial wherewithal and the track record to get the job done.

Some argue that government should simply hand billions of dollars to local governments to build their own networks—rhetoric suggesting government-led options are innately better and collaborations with the private sector are inherently bad. It’s no way to run an innovation economy or empower more citizens with access to its opportunities.

Government is good for many things. But if the dismal record of failed or failing municipal broadband initiatives teaches us anything, it is that moving quickly to keep pace with technology is not one of them.

Broadband companies are eager to work with local government to provide the expertise and infrastructure for their connectivity efforts. Hundreds of localities already are engaged with our companies on public safety and smart city initiatives. This allows the community to bring home the benefits of broadband without assuming the extraordinary financial risks and ongoing technical maintenance of these complex networks.

There are numerous constructive ways that political candidates can champion broadband — from streamlining local permitting and access to rights-of-way to ensuring modern national rules that safeguard consumers across the board to passing federal legislation to close the loophole that prevents net neutrality and privacy rules from applying to the likes of Amazon, Google and Facebook.

From presidential aspirants to voters, network builders to tech innovators, we share the same aspiration — to connect every American to the full benefits of the global digital revolution. A truly connected nation is within our collective grasp. Our nation’s broadband companies stand ready to work with all leaders – Republican and Democrat – to finish the job.

This article originally appeared as an editorial on The Hill