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America's Broadband Moment

“While the American Rescue Plan is changing the course of the pandemic and delivering relief for working families, this is no time to build back to the way things were.”

The opening sentence of the American Rescue Plan signals the United States’ desire to build “future proof” solutions to our most important infrastructure challenges. A “digital divide” has persisted for too long with connectivity elevated as a clear necessity for communication at the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, which further brought to light deficiencies in our nation’s network coverage. 

The statistics are all too familiar. Thirty-five (35%) percent of rural Americans lack access to broadband at minimally acceptable speeds. One in four students (about 16 million children) don’t have reliable internet connections for remote learning. Forty-two million Americans cannot purchase broadband internet due to financial, geographic, or service limitations.

Where should broadband resources go and how can we know if they’re creating a return on investment?

The Rescue Plan vows to “bring affordable, reliable, high-speed internet to every American,” especially for these underserved demographics. Americans need an adaptable, forward-thinking broadband plan to close the digital divide now – and keep it closed. 

With new resources in play for states and local communities, the hard work now begins. The biggest questions: where should these resources go and how can we know if they’re creating a return on investment?

At least part of the answer lies in lessons from the past and innovation for the future. We can learn from our nation’s history of successfully completing massive national infrastructure projects while applying a “future proof” threshold to the infrastructure itself and the technology we use to build it. Most of all, we need a way to map and track broadband infrastructure upgrades to keep the public informed in “near real-time” so that each dollar of public investment is targeted and transparent. 

Rural American Highways

When the government built our railroads and highways back in the New Deal days, paper maps were regularly updated to provide regular status updates for planners, decision-makers and the public at-large. As we update our broadband infrastructure, today’s planners, decision-makers and the public need access technology that can do the same thing – but that is expandable and able to give us a full stack of geographic, demographic and relevant network inputs to show a real-time view of these upgrade projects. 

A fraction of public funding from the Rescue plan can support network builders’ adoption of a standard proposal and tracking schema which can be integrated into an existing system or embraced as a new innovation in planning, designing and building a new network. These tracking tools can:

    • Create an impetus for new service provider entrants

    • Speed up the pace of deployment

    • Create an unprecedented level of transparency and accountability on where public dollars are going

Including some designated funding for innovative network asset management software will allow us to flip the mapping model on its head to enable true “internet infrastructure intelligence” rather than just continuing the tired precedent of reactionary mapping of poor quality broadband data.  So doing, we can track current projects and inform our funding decisions in real-time, with full visibility to the public.

This approach would help achieve the coveted win-win-win for three major stakeholders. It would represent victories for:

    • Citizens who can finally understand their prospects for better connectivity

    • Granting agencies that need to see the results of their funding with a contextual “dashboard view” of applications, projects in process and lit networks

    • Internet Service Providers that need a simpler way to interface with and report to grantors and the public

Planning ahead for an infrastructure bill that further addresses broadband funding, we have an idea of what that might look like through the Accessible, Affordable Internet for All Act, another piece of broadband upgrade legislation introduced in mid-March to the tune of roughly $100 billion for internet infrastructure in underserved areas. That bill stresses the importance of a “central database to track the construction and use of and access to any broadband service infrastructure built using any Federal support.” Smart.

With an unprecedented amount of funding available, federal and state government entities must follow the money to optimize their impact. Companies building networks with public funds should receive incentives for investing in – and incorporating – tools that allow for the transparency and efficiency described above. The payoff on customer acquisition for ISPs should more than offset any competitive risks of oversharing and subsidies will offset network construction costs in hard-to-reach areas, creating first entrant status in those places. 

The urgency of the pandemic should call us to stop obsessing over the soft edges of the “served/unserved” parts of our national broadband maps and get to the work of building and expanding networks. Recent guidance from the Treasury has wisely tilted us towards a reasonably future-proofed threshold (100mb symmetrical connection). Now we can focus public funding towards providers willing to build out services within the gap areas, all while allowing the public to track the status of their progress in real-time.

Investing in technology for planning and tracking broadband infrastructure upgrades will create greater visibility into the impact of programs, policies and the funding impacts on new broadband network construction. It will provide a more nimble environment for making meaningful adjustments that will help us to more efficiently bridge the gaps and promote connectivity for all. 

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America's Broadband Moment Blog by Brian Mefford
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America’s Broadband Moment “While the American Rescue Plan is changing the course of the pandemic and delivering relief for working families, this is no time

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