Many of us take for granted that we can unlock our phones or open our laptops and be instantly connected to the wealth of information the internet offers. It’s not until we experience a Wi-Fi outage that we realize how dependent we are on high-speed access. But this temporary annoyance for most of us is sadly a constant reality for the millions who don’t have access to broadband, making it difficult for them to take advantage of the same opportunities we take for granted. It doesn’t have to be like this.
With the end of the pandemic, the importance of connectivity in almost every aspect of life has become even clearer. And while we tend to associate infrastructure with highways, bridges and clean drinking water, high-speed broadband is critical infrastructure itself — an integral part of our daily lives and the flow of information that underpins our economy. It is the foundation of our future, from smart grid technology to healthcare to public safety.
That is why the legislature has paid particular attention to the issue of broadband access. Just last year, leaders from both sides of the aisle came together to pass the landmark infrastructure bill that launched the Broadband Equity, Access, and Deployment Program (BEAD) to lay the foundation for widespread adoption and a fairer and more affordable one provide access to broadband services.
On November 18, the Federal Communications Commission released a new and detailed map of US broadband coverage that will be critical in allocating BEAD’s $42.5 billion in funding. Its release is a significant step towards broadband justice as it will better identify those who still lack basic access to our connected society. Broadband connects us to important resources and powers our schools, hospitals and workplaces. Broadband is also having a positive impact on our local communities – it drives economic development and helps businesses reach new customers, both near and far.
Despite these benefits, however, our nation’s digital divide remains stubbornly present. The bipartisan Infrastructure Act rightly prioritized high-speed internet, because broadband should be considered a fundamental human right, like clean water. We commend the legislature for tackling this issue head-on. Now is the time to close that gap, and with this generational investment, we should in turn make technology choices that are designed for at least one generation.
With virtually unlimited bandwidth, fiber optic connectivity is the fastest, most reliable, and most innovative solution to bridging the digital divide. Other options, such as Fixed wireless access, for example, may be quicker to deploy, but require more maintenance, have limited functionality, and require significant new investment in a relatively short period of time. Fiber also requires less maintenance, is less expensive to operate, and is a more sustainable option.
Many rural areas that have long been served by community-based providers have been fortunate to keep pace with advances in broadband seen in more urban areas. And while the digital divide remains severe in many other rural communities, progress is now being made in those places too.
Consider the Upper Cumberland region of Tennessee. Thriving small towns, large lakes, deep forests, unforgettable mountain and valley views, and four seasons of relatively mild weather draw newcomers from far and wide to take advantage of the low cost and high quality of life. Twin Lakes’ expanded fiber optic network has met the needs of new residents and business owners for high-speed connectivity and has fueled economic growth in the area.
Service providers and suppliers are banding together to connect the unconnected by investing in innovation and ramping up production, but the private sector cannot do it alone. Last week, we were pleased to join the US Department of Commerce, the Telecommunications Industry Association, and Corning Incorporated in North Carolina to celebrate the IIJA’s one-year anniversary and examine how facilities like Corning’s are expanding manufacturing capacity and conducting human resources training to the internet for all build up.
We need more trained technicians to keep up with growing demand, and we need legislators – from City Hall to Capitol Hill – to achieve the speed and scale needed to solve this critical problem. We applaud the FCC for releasing the updated broadband map so we know where the connectivity gaps are at the moment. And we urge state broadband regulators to quickly release their five-year digital equity action plans and plans so the industry can ensure the resources deployed match the unique needs of the regions they serve.
We all agree that every American should have access to broadband, no matter where they are, and now is the time to make that a reality. Ambitious but necessary, the goals of the bipartisan infrastructure law bring us one step closer to closing the digital divide. While more rural areas are meaningfully coming online due to significant fiber investment, there is still work to be done and many more communities can benefit from broadband. If we use all the tools at our disposal, along with private sector innovation and public sector resources, high-speed internet is within everyone’s reach.
Shirley Bloomfield is CEO of the Rural Broadband Association and Gary Bolton is President and CEO of the Fiber Broadband Association.