Federal Broadband Investment Should Be on Access

Last month, the Republicans unveiled their own $928 billion infrastructure counteroffer to the Biden Administration’s American Jobs Plan (AJP). The Republican proposal allocates $65 billion in federal spending for broadband investment to reach currently unserved areas, a figure significantly less than the $100 billion outlined under Biden’s proposal but still a large sum that would be carried by taxpayers. 

While broadband access continues to improve each year, millions  of Americans still live without a broadband connection. Without broadband access, adults and children in unserved areas are at a disadvantage compared to those who have high speed access. Internet connectivity offers rural Americans the ability to telecommute to jobs, receive virtual health care, and access educational opportunities. Any proposal to close the digital divide — whatever the cost — should first and foremost focus on increasing internet access through a technology neutral approach that encourages innovation in the broadband space.

While the percentage of Americans with internet access now exceeds 90%, there are still millions of consumers who live without broadband services. According to the FCC, approximately 19 million Americans, or 6% of the population, still lack access to terrestrial-fixed broadband. This issue is especially prevalent in rural areas, where 14 million Americans have no connection.

Americans without access to internet are not able to enjoy the benefits of connectivity such as the ability to work remotely, use essential services like telehealth, or access news regarding important events. Similarly, a home without a high-speed connection leaves children unable to connect to classrooms for virtual learning.

Limited access to an internet connection, especially for children in rural areas, can cause them to fall behind significantly in school. According to a study from Michigan State University, “students without internet access and those who depend on a cell phone for their only access are half a grade point below those with fast access.” Researchers determined that children with internet had “substantially higher digital skills, which are a strong predictor of performance on standardized tests.” Ensuring all students have internet access will guarantee they are given equal opportunity to succeed in school.

Delivering a broadband internet connection to these families would provide an improvement to their standard of living, especially for those with lower incomes. A survey published by the Technology Policy Institute shows that 81% of lower income Comcast subscribers said an internet connection helps them to better manage time and money, resulting in lower monthly bills. In the survey, 83% of respondents also admitted a connection helped a child in the family complete school work. Broadband access proves to be enormously valuable for families, making it imperative that the focus of government spending remains on increasing access in unserved areas.

Improving access is also critical to economic growth in the 21st century. An economic impact report from Deloitte estimates that a 10% increase in broadband access in 2014 would have added 875,000 additional jobs and $186 billion in economic output in 2019. Not only does increasing broadband access improve the lives of the unserved, but it also has much wider economic benefits for all. Closing the broadband gap now will guarantee consumers do not miss out on the future economic benefits to come from greater connectivity.

Drastically increasing broadband access will require encouraging innovation in the broadband space. Employing a technology neutral approach to deployment that utilizes new and exciting technologies such as wireless 5G, using untapped spectrum for TV white spaces, fiber, and low orbiting satellites increases competition and lowers the cost and time needed to reach unserved consumers. A report from Boston Consulting Group estimates that through a mix of technologies, consumers without a broadband connection could receive high-speed internet service for only about $10 billion, significantly less than both the GOP and Biden Administration’s plans. With so many Americans still lacking a broadband connection, the goal of any new proposal must prioritize improving access for unserved consumers. Access to broadband brings numerous benefits, and delivering a connection would have tremendous economic benefits for all. Congress should continue to employ a technology-neutral approach to broadband infrastructure that will encourage innovation and deliver broadband for a much cheaper price tag. Refusing to do so will continue to leave millions of Americans behind, resulting in worse financial outcomes for so many families.

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