Brookings recently posted Blair Levin’s A broadband agenda for the (eventual) infrastructure bill. He highlights a number of key strategies:
- Provide more dedicated funding to broadband.
- Clarify the definition of what constitutes acceptable broadband for rural areas.
- Clarify geographic eligibility.
- Prioritize funds for capital expenditures.
- Eliminate barriers to co-ops.
- Require new technologies to meet market metrics before eligibility.
- Preempt laws that prohibit local communities from addressing local digital divides.
Many of those strategies seem like a clear cut way to support expanding broadband but I take umbrage with one – Clarify the definition of what constitutes acceptable broadband for rural areas.
Here is more of what he says on that topic…
The current law requires the FCC to ensure that rural, high cost areas have service “reasonably comparable” to urban areas, words that lead to varying interpretations. Congress should clarify the definition with a market test. For example, it could state that “reasonably comparable” means a service level equal to what 75 percent of consumers in urban areas use.
This metric will evolve over time, but a standard would ground the target around market activity, not political preferences. It reduces the ability of institutions, like the FCC and Department of Agriculture, to favor funding for projects that protect their prior investment decisions rather than deploy capital more effectively. My experience in government suggests that an institutional “confirmation bias” is a material risk.
It seems that we are creating a technology second class status when we decide that rural areas and rural residents don’t require or deserve the same broadband as their urban and suburban counterparts. I don’t know why rural residents should be urged to be satisfied with less. It seems to me that rural residents have greater need to access educational opportunities, remote healthcare and economic opportunities. In St Paul I have several hospitals within 5 miles of my house – that’s not true in most rural areas. In St Paul, my kids could walk to school even on a snow day. Schools aren’t always walking distance in rural areas.
The population density inherent in rural areas creates opportunities. Broadband can level that playing field in rural areas by bringing customers from all over the world to your front door and conversely bring the world of products, training and services to your front door.
I understand that the goal of the strategy is to encourage providers/communities to move away from legacy infrastructure but I think we can do that by recognizing that we need one definition for broadband for rural, urban and suburban areas.