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    How NTIA Can Use Historic Investments to Ensure Universal Broadband

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    On January 7, 2022, the National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA) requested public comment on policy and program considerations associated with new broadband grant programs authorized and funded by the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act: the Broadband Equity, Access, and Deployment (BEAD) Program, the Enabling Middle Mile Broadband Infrastructure Program, and the State Digital Equity Planning Grant Program.

    The Benton Institute for Broadband & Society conducts research and public education to bring open, affordable, high-performance broadband to all people in the U.S. to ensure a thriving democracy. Benton also supports legal and policy experts who preserve and strengthen the public benefits of America’s communications environment, who can nourish and protect democratic values, and who can communicate to the public why this all matters. Over the past few years, Benton experts have written more than a dozen reports that we believe can help inform the NTIA’s implementation of the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act.

    Andrew Jay Schwartzman
    Schwartzman

    In our comments, we call upon the NTIA must to that everyone in America can use high-performance broadband as soon as possible. Universal, affordable, open, high-performance broadband is an important ingredient for a more just America, a healthier society, and an economy that offers true opportunity for everyone. 

    We urge the NTIA to prioritize investing public dollars equitably, including targeting disadvantaged communities. As NTIA crafts requirements and guidelines for these broadband programs, it should aim to ensure support flows to the areas and people who most need it including: communities of color, lower-income areas, persistent poverty counties, high-poverty areas, and rural areas as well as aging individuals, incarcerated individuals, veterans, individuals with disabilities, individuals with a language barrier, and individuals who are members of a racial or ethnic minority group. NTIA should prioritize projects that demonstrate that these areas and populations have been identified and offer solutions to their connectivity needs.

    NTIA must approach access, adoption, affordability, digital equity, and digital inclusion as necessary parts of a comprehensive broadband strategy. As Congress correctly expressed in the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act, “achieving digital equity is a matter of social and economic justice and is worth pursuing”—and is only achieved when all “individuals and communities have the information technology capacity that is needed for full participation in the society and economy of the United States.” NTIA should look no further than to innovative states, which have found ways to incorporate digital equity and economic development considerations into their grant programs. Many states’ broadband grant programs explicitly request and reward some combination of economic development plans, likely community impact indicators, and additional broadband awareness, adoption, and digital training programs.

    Wherever possible, the broadband programs, especially BEAD, should promote competition. As Congress finds, “In many communities across the country, increased competition among broadband providers has the potential to offer consumers more affordable, high-quality options for broadband service.” And as noted in President Biden’s July 2021 Executive Order on Promoting Competition in the American Economy, “In the telecommunications sector, Americans … pay too much for broadband, cable television, and other communications services, in part because of a lack of adequate competition.” Low-income and rural households are the most vulnerable to conditions that threaten basic economic liberties, democratic accountability, and the welfare of workers, farmers, small businesses, startups, and consumers. NTIA should 1) police unfair, deceptive, and abusive business practices, 2) resist creating local broadband monopolies and promote competition, 3) promulgate rules that promote competition, including the market entry of new competitors; and 4) promote market transparency through compelled disclosure of information. Specifically, NTIA should:

    • Prioritize Open-Access Networks that Facilitate Competition Between Multiple Providers: IIJA broadband programs should give preference in awarding funding to broadband network builders that choose to provide open access.
    • Support Municipal Experimentation: IIJA broadband programs should enable municipalities and counties to experiment with various ways of increasing broadband deployment.
    • Encourage Local Planning and Engagement: Even applying for IIJA broadband programs support requires funding. NTIA should provide the kind of support offered by multiple states, including Illinois, which provide grants to eligible municipalities and/or economic development organizations in order to assist in the creation of a local or regional broadband strategy.
    • Empower Community Institutions to Act as Launching Pads: Supported broadband projects should allow private broadband providers to extend networks that reach community institutions into nearby neighborhoods.
    • Collect and Make Public Broadband Pricing Data: NTIA should require subgrantees to disclose their residential pricing (with fees and ancillary charges) for each market and NTIA should provide public analyses of competition in local markets.

    Concerning access, NTIA should ensure that whenever feasible, public funds are used to build networks that will meet users’ needs, not just for today, but also for decades to come. High-performance broadband networks provide fast, symmetrical upload and download speeds, low latency, ample monthly usage capacity, and security from cyberattacks. Public funds should be targeted to networks that, once installed, can be upgraded easily and scaled as the demand for broadband increases—not for the construction of networks that will quickly become obsolete. State broadband deployment programs have used a range of technology-neutral selection mechanisms either to favor the fastest broadband technologies or eliminate technologies that cannot meet minimum criteria. The most common way is to use an application process that awards more priority to faster, scalable technologies. 

    To ensure we reach universal broadband adoption in the U.S., the broadband programs must ensure that broadband services are affordable to all households however low their incomes are. Broadband adoption and broadband affordability are closely linked. The digital lives of Americans with lower and higher incomes remain markedly different. In fact, the shares of Americans in each income tier who have home broadband or a smartphone have not significantly changed from 2019 to 2021. About two-fifths of adults with lower incomes do not have home broadband services (43%) or a desktop or laptop computer (41%). Some 46% of low-income households say they find it “somewhat” or “very” difficult to put their monthly internet bill into their budget. We also find that 40% of low-income households say they cannot afford to pay anything for home broadband service. Another 22% say that about $25 per month would suit them. Cost of monthly service is the chief reason cited by those who lack a home broadband subscription.” By comparison, broadband service and computers are nearly ubiquitous among adults in households earning $100,000 or more a year. 

    Concerning digital equity and inclusion, NTIA should require and assist states in developing statewide digital equity coalitions that will work to support digital equity ecosystems in tribal, rural, suburban, and urban communities across each state. NTIA should work closely with each state to provide the technical assistance, programmatic guidance, and other logistical support needed to develop a statewide digital equity coalition, which would be responsible for developing, implementing, and evaluating its State Digital Equity Plan. In addition, NTIA should actively encourage the development of a state interagency working group or task force that would represent the state in the statewide digital equity coalition. The NTIA can also provide assistance to help state coalitions include entities that have not traditionally been involved in digital equity work, but see it as essential to their goals of supporting outcomes in the following areas that have been identified in the IIJA: economic and workforce development; education; health; civic and social engagement; climate and critical infrastructure resiliency; and delivery of other essential services, especially with respect to covered populations mentioned in the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act.

     Adrianne B. Furniss is the Executive Director of the Benton Institute for Broadband & Society. Andrew Jay Schwartzman is the Benton Senior Counselor. 

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