Spring is in high gear and the air is filled with the sounds of tax reform and the sweet timbre of “infrastructure spending.” Both the Senate Commerce Committee and the House Communications Subcommittee have held hearings that addressed broadband infrastructure. This is a good thing that both Congressional leaders and the new Administration recognize how critical our nation’s broadband infrastructure has been and will continue to be. ITTA has urged and will continue to urge the leaders of our government to ensure that broadband deployment is a key priority in any new federal infrastructure investment program.
There are three critical components to ensure that any future broadband infrastructure investment program will be a success:
First, there should be direct funding for broadband deployment. The tax credits and the “public-private partnerships” being suggested by some will not result in the wide-scale broadband deployment needed and expected of any federal investment program.
Second, such direct funding should be administered through the federal universal service program, which the FCC oversees. The FCC is best-positioned to ensure funding is allocated to where it is needed most. More than any other federal agency or program, it has a deep bench of expertise and experience on broadband deployment policy.
Third, the FCC must “get it right.” Any future deployment decisions should leverage existing expertise and prioritize support to areas without adequate broadband service today. Funding should not be made available to duplicate existing broadband infrastructure or services and should flow to whatever broadband investment best meets program requirements regardless of the technology employed.
In the 2009 Recovery Act, Congress charged the FCC with developing a long-term broadband plan. In the eight years that followed, the FCC reformed the universal service high-cost support, Lifeline, and E-rate programs and methodically established and implemented the Connect America Fund, Mobility Fund, and rate-of-return carrier universal service reforms, learning from experience with each incremental development and pivoting where necessary and appropriate each time. Simply put, the FCC’s experience with broadband deployment policy and processes through these efforts affords it an unparalleled view of the deployment forest and trees.
Seven years after the FCC formulated its National Broadband Plan — during which time the threshold for what constitutes “broadband” has increased substantially and millions of additional Americans have, for the first time, received access to broadband — it is time to see implementation of the plan blossom to maturity. Congress and the Administration should recognize, and appropriately fund, broadband infrastructure as a key priority in any new, comprehensive federal infrastructure investment program; such funding should be administered through the federal universal service program under the FCC’s stewardship; and, girded and vivified by this funding, the FCC’s top priority must be to ensure that, once and for all, broadband access indeed becomes “universal.”