I’ve been slogging and thinking about the recently released Broadband Opportunity Council (BOC) Report and Recommendations. I think it’s an important document because what gets measured gets done and they have lots of measurements specified in the report. Also there is a real recognition that deploying broadband to the far corners is a whole new game. I think a key statement about the need for government intervention comes early…
Much of the easy work has been done – building out broadband infrastructure in more profitable areas of the country where the community capacity is strong and the business case is compelling; and encouraging broadband adoption and use among people who are already “digitally ready.”
The hard work that remains is reaching those communities where geography and economics work against deployment and reaching individuals who do not yet have the same opportunities to use broadband to meet personal and professional goals.
However, I would replace “easy” in the first line with “financially rewarding”. Private business has done a good job providing service when and where financially feasible. And with government support (ARRA stimulus funding, USDA loans, traditional USF funds and other), they have provided service where it has become financially feasible. Providing service where and when it isn’t feasible is a different venture. For a while the industry tried using the high cost subsidies to help support broadband development but that was using landline fees (at a time when landlines are decreasing) to support a growing need.
Ironically, this document is preceded by many changes in the USF, although that is decided by the FCC not the White House anyway. In fact, the report specifically says it doesn’t address: Lifeline, E-Rate, retransmission consent, tax incentives and bonus depreciation – but it does offer some other concrete recommendations. (Including one that relates to E-Rate.)
The report focuses on four recommendations (that lead to 36 actionable items)
- Modernize Federal programs to expand program support for broadband investments.
- Empower communities with tools and resources to attract broadband investment and promote meaningful use.
- Promote increased broadband deployment and competition through expanded access to Federal assets.
- Improve data collection, analysis and research on broadband
Some of the actionable items will be no-brainers for folks who follow broadband issues. Dig Once is one example – a good policy that encourages agencies and providers to work together to “dig once” to install broadband and install as much capacity as possible. Some involve “clarifying broadband eligibility”, which also makes sense, removes some guess work for planners and emphasizes the importance of broadband in the eyes of the federal government. Some encourage the federal government to collect, disseminate and support access to information – from best practices to encourage adoption to whereabouts of federal assets.
There were a couple of actionable items that caught my eye…
USDA: Expand broadband eligibility for RUS Telecommunications Program: RUS will revise regulations that currently limit broadband investment in specific areas with inadequate service. This change would open funding opportunities to a different provider even though an incumbent exists and would allow new entrants to access an estimated FY16 funding of $690 million.
This may open the door to new providers to enter areas that are un- or underserved. The question is what is the definition of adequate service, how much will be invested and what kind of organizations can apply (municipalities? Cooperatives?).
Department of Health and Human Services (HHS): $25 million in new grants to advance Health Centers’ use of health IT: HHS will support Health Centers’ efforts to use health information technology to improve healthcare. HHS will award $25 million in grants to help health centers implement electronic health records and other health information technology to improve quality of care and patient access to personal health information. Since patient and health center use of electronic health information relies on having access to those records, training and technical assistance to facilitate access to broadband will be listed as an eligible expense in this grant program.
This looks like new money. Most items include ways to open the door to including broadband in old money, which is helpful. New money is good too.
Institute of Museum and Library Services (IMLS): Provide libraries with tools to assess and manage broadband networks: IMLS will fund a new initiative to develop a network assessment toolkit and technical assistance program for rural and Tribal libraries. These libraries provide critical public access to computers and the Internet with support and training from professionals, but many have inadequate connectivity and Wi-Fi. The toolkit will help libraries configure, modify and manage their networks. After piloting in 30 rural and Tribal communities, an expanded rollout will be considered.
As a former librarian, I appreciate the role that libraries are poised to play in part because libraries have been a go-to place for many people needing access to technology. I find this item compelling if it include piloting new networks such using white spaces and other spectrum for wireless networks.
I like the idea of convening stakeholder. I like the focus on adoption and training but I think assessing what is out there before creating anything new makes sense.
The BOC put out a call for comments and recommendations as part of their research. Blandin Foundation was one of the 248 entities that responded. The report cites a items and credits Blandin for supporting them, including
- More research
- Dig Once
- Adoption support
- Sharing best practices on adoption, infrastructure and planning
- A reach out to all citizens
But even more than those specifics, Blandin called out an incident in their recommendations that makes the case for helping all agencies understand that broadband is a priority…
Though USDA has long supported telephone cooperatives through its traditional loan programs, the conservative nature of the RUS lending policies discourages the formation of new cooperatives seeking to bring broadband services to unserved and underserved rural locations. The federal government should consider new policies to support the creation of new broadband cooperatives.
To address this opportunity, in 2014, Blandin Foundation applied for USDA funding to support the creation of a unique Cooperative Development Center focused on broadband cooperatives. In their comments, the USDA reviewer was not able to make the connection between broadband development and business and economic development. Clearly, this connection exists and a stronger recognition by federal agencies needs to be established.
Above I say some recommendations seem like no-brainers – but really only to those of us who live, sleep, eat broadband. To others this may serve as a wakeup call or as permission to make broadband a priority.
Also inherent in the excerption I shared in Blandin’s support of cooperatives. The BOC report wasn’t as explicit in their support but perhaps when the talk about supporting new entrants, that opens the door to cooperatives. The truth is that most funding decisions need to go through Congress (it’s one of those things the report doesn’t address) but calling out the cooperative and municipal networks in this report would serve as a wakeup call or permission to Congress to include coops and community networks into their existing equations.