The U.S. legislature is considering historic investments in broadband expansion, following a year and a half of a pandemic that revealed how important broadband access is for education, work and social connection.
But while funding is a big part of closing the digital divide, broadband advocates say that funding needs to come with accountability and transparency, and to be targeted to the areas that need it the most.
“It’s really an equity issue at this point,” said Misty Crosby, executive director for Buckeye Hills Regional Council, a council of local governments that works to improve the southeast Ohio region in areas including broadband access. “[Rural areas] will fall further and further behind the longer they remain unconnected.”
The legislature is currently considering an infrastructure bill that would dedicate $65 billion to broadband. Another bill under consideration, The Broadband Internet Connections for Rural America Act, would combine the ReConnect program with a farm bill authorized rural broadband program and invest $43.2 billion into rural broadband through U.S. Department of Agriculture programs.
Those numbers may sound big, but this wouldn’t be the first time the federal government has poured billions into broadband.
The Federal Communications Commission’s Rural Digital Opportunity Fund offered $16 billion over 10 years in its phase one auction last year. Billions more have come from the FCC’s Universal Service Fund, and the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s ReConnect program. Ohio created its own broadband grant program this year, funded with $250 million in the state budget.
But FCC maps that have been used to determine funding still overestimate how many people have access. And then there’s also the issue of who funding goes to, and how it is spent.
Clear specifications about what has to be built, accountability and transparency will be key for making sure broadband funding has a significant impact, said Tom Reid, president of Reid Consulting Group, a member of Connecting Appalachia, an organization dedicated to broadband deployment in Appalachian Ohio.
The FCC was a little bit more aggressive about specifications for the Rural Digital Opportunity Fund, but accountability still seems to be lacking. For example, if a carrier chooses to drop one remote household that could cost thousands of dollars to meet, they only have to pay the average subsidy per household in the state, which may be a lot cheaper.
“It absolutely incentivizes abandonment,” Reid said.
And while providers have to file annual reports on projects, most of the content in those reports is treated as “proprietary” by the FCC, so the public can’t see it.
“I say, the carrier accepted public dollars, there ought to be a requirement” for the public to be able to see that information, Reid said.
Reid is a fan of the accountability built into the Ohio program. Providers will have to identify the area they want to serve and give a list of addresses. Other companies can challenge that and claim they already serve those addresses, but they will need to provide proof. There’s also a mechanism for requiring carriers to repay funds if they don’t deliver on what they say they would do.
Gov. Mike DeWine signed an executive order July 30 to adopt emergency rules for the grant program, rather than go through the longer, typical rule making process, so the program can go into effect more quickly.
“Ohio really looked into those programs and tried to design something that really had some teeth,” Crosby said. “That’s something good to see in House Bill 2.”
The $65 billion in the federal infrastructure package would dwarf existing programs, if it goes through, she said. Some estimate closing the digital divide could cost around $100 billion nationally. Others have put it at $80 billion. The infrastructure funding, plus the Rural Digital Opportunity Fund, would get close.
One concern Reid has about the infrastructure bill program is that it still relies on FCC maps.
“We know the problem is much worse than what the FCC says,” he said. “To rely on only that for the broadband funding, we think, is a mistake.”
The FCC was ordered in 2020 to update how it collects, reports and verifies data for its broadband coverage map. For now, Buckeye Hills Regional Council estimates there are over three times more unserved households in Ohio than the FCC estimates.
The U.S. Department of Commerce’s National Telecommunications and Information Administration recently released the first public, interactive map that shows datasets helping to indicate where people do not have access, or don’t have good access. The maps includes not only FCC data, but also information from community surveys and speed tests.
Buckeye Hills is also working with the Broadband Ohio office on developing a map for Ohio using consumer speed tests. It will be similar to the new national map, but will have more detail in Appalachian Ohio communities, Crosby said. She is hoping that map, which will roll out within the month, will help the state target investments.
Infrastructure investments need to be long-term, Crosby said. That means investing in projects that will provide adequate access for decades, not just a few years. That means going beyond the current FCC definition of 25 megabits per second download speeds and 3 mbps upload speeds.
She is also hoping to see future programs open to any entity that can deploy broadband, whether that be a private company, or a local government. Cities that pave roads or provide sewers aren’t worrying about income from those things, she noted.
“I’m saying that broadband, in some of our hardest to reach areas and some of our lower income communities, needs to be treated as such,” she said. “If a local government can deploy to reach everyone and make it affordable, I think they should be encouraged to do that.”
Since the Rural Digital Opportunity Fund uses a 10 year rollout, it will be hard to tell whether carriers are actually deploying broadband, and where, for about four or five years, Crosby said.
Reid worries that the timeline is too long. In the 1990s, copper infrastructure in rural areas was already outdated. Now, in some areas, even landline telephones don’t work anymore.
“A lot of rural Ohio has been in a digital divide for the entire internet age,” Reid said. “Since 1990, we’ve spent $100 billion to fix the problem, and I don’t know where the money went, but it did not go to fixing the problem in some of these cases.”
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