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In the age of COVID-19, broadband connectivity is more important than ever. It enables us to virtually connect to friends and loved ones while still adhering to social distancing guidelines; work or find employment opportunities remotely; and collaborate with teachers and educators in lieu of in-person classes.
Much of the success U.S. broadband networks have experienced in overcoming the challenges posed by the COVID-19 pandemic can be attributed to more than 25 years of private-sector investment and a balanced regulatory framework.
However, while the current crisis has demonstrated the importance of robust, resilient broadband networks, it has also exposed the dire need in some communities—primarily rural ones—where limited private-sector investment due to a lack of geographic density has led to some households and businesses being unable to access a minimum level of broadband service. It is time for Congress to finally close the digital divide.
Importance of Broadband Investment and Reform for U.S. Businesses
- American businesses rely on high-speed broadband connections for nearly every aspect of their operations—from talent recruitment and hiring to marketing and sales to VoIP phone systems and e-commerce solutions that enable them to compete in an increasingly global marketplace.
- Particularly given the current health care crisis, broadband networks have become increasingly essential in facilitating remote work by employees in a more productive, efficient way.
- As we saw with the COVID-19 pandemic, good policy produces good results. Despite predictions that America’s infrastructure would buckle under the increased usage, it didn’t. That’s thanks to decades of bipartisan policies that have promoted private-sector investment in a resilient broadband infrastructure.
- In fact, according to US Telecom, internet traffic jumped 27 percent at the height of the COVID-19 crisis—yet, download speeds in the U.S. stayed steady and even increased in some areas.
- However, rural businesses face distinct disadvantages when it comes to accessing high-speed broadband networks, which makes it more difficult for them to expand and grow into new markets. This, in turn, has a negative impact on entire communities.
- The FCC estimates that 18 million people lack broadband internet service, including at least one-fifth of rural Americans.
- It will take the right support from Congress and federal officials in order to finally close this broadband gap in regions where private-sector investment is simply not financially viable absent government support.
- In a rarity these days, there is currently strong, bipartisan support for finally closing the digital divide between rural communities and their urban and suburban counterparts.
Policymakers should seize this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to solve this issue in a comprehensive, yet focused, way that finally connects all Americans and U.S. businesses to the broadband needed to succeed today. Congress as it debates the current coronavirus relief package should start by:
- Fully funding the Broadband Data Act, which would help create more accurate maps to determine which communities face the highest needs. This will enable Congress to better appropriate technology-neutral funding without impediments like existing ETC requirements to areas that are truly unserved to help alleviate COVID-19 access disparities.
- Putting in place sensible permit streamlining for broadband like shot clocks and fee relief.
- Bridging the Homework Gap by providing temporary, targeted, and timely funding to make sure all students have the resources they need to engage in digital learning during the pandemic.
- Reassessing the successes and failures of the Connect America Fund and the Rural Digital Opportunity Fund to better understand their impact on rural broadband deployment.
- Congress should modernize the FCC’s Lifeline program. To help alleviate disparities caused by COVID-19, Congress should enable targeted and timely direct assistance appropriated from general funds for low-income households.