As part of her campaign infrastructure plan, Democratic presidential front runner Hillary Clinton called for connecting 100 percent of households by 2020 with affordable, high-speed internet access. Her proposal highlights a gap in broadband internet access within lower-income and rural communities, and it seeks to eradicate it through affordable solutions and investment in free Wi-Fi for public spaces. Current federal agency programs and partnerships with private companies have also attempted to bridge this gap. However, the U.S. is 23rd in the world for best broadband access. Despite these shortcomings, alternative solutions at the state and local level have given new hope to the possibility of bridging the internet access gap, and as a result, fulfilling Clinton’s campaign proposal.
According to a January 2015 White House report, the access gap refers to the nearly 51 million Americans that cannot purchase wired broadband connection with speeds up to 25 megabits per second (Mbps). The report also highlights that 63% of these 51 million Americans have access to speeds of 100Mbps or greater with available internet broadband, the speed at which the Department of Education says is the baseline to support 21st-century digital learning. At a recent Brooking’s Institution event which highlighted the internet access gap, scholars noted that the federal government plays a vital role in removing these barriers to access and affordability which often compound disparities in education and wealth throughout the country. Many efforts at the federal agency level have sought to address these barriers, including Administration programs and massive funding distributed as a result of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA).
ConnectHome, an Obama administration initiative launched by the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), seeks to build public-private partnerships between internet service providers and businesses to provide computer training and technical support. Additionally, the program encourages education groups to offer services for students and young adults looking to engage in SAT prep courses of job training. Thus far, the program is active across 28 communities, including one tribal nation, reaching a total of 275,000 homes in public housing.
Within the Department of Commerce, the National Technology and Information Administration (NTIA) manages different programs to expand access to and quality of internet connectivity. For example, BroadbandUSA works with key stakeholders to provide technical assistance and improve quality. When Congress passed the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act in 2009 (ARRA), several new programs sought to expand broadband to particular areas, including the Rural Utility Service’s Broadband Initiatives Program and Broadband Technology Opportunity Program within the Commerce Department.
Despite this progress, not all agency programs have been as successful. Last summer, Politico reported the Rural Utility Services’ mismanagement of nearly $277 million in ARRA funding intended for broadband access to rural communities. Of the 192 different projects that relied on this funding, 42 projects (totaling $300 million) were never started. Additionally, the program has to date only impacted several hundred thousand residents, a serious shortcoming from the 7 million residents originally projected to benefit from the funding.
While federal programs have been able to deliver broadband internet, state and local efforts have also been somewhat successful in their drive to expand broadband internet access. For example, municipal broadband provided by local governments has the ability to connect underserved communities while competing with private providers to drive prices down and increase the quality of service. In one such instance, the Vermont Telecommunications Authority (VTA) launched a $100 million project to provide grants for infrastructure projects in underserved areas for commercial, residential, and community institutions. The VTA was able to lease services to different internet service providers that would meet their stringent requirements.
Chattanooga, Tennessee provided a successful public solution to the internet access gap based on the speed of service. The city recently began offering 10-gigabit broadband speeds to 170,000 customers within the urban area, beating the speed of the local competition –a 2 gigabit-speed Comcast service. Similar high-speed services have been offered to smaller populations in Salisbury, North Carolina, and Springfield, Vermont, where faster speeds benefit local businesses, households, and schools.
Public intervention into the broadband service sector has been met with hostility from several private companies that claim interference with the free market system. Providers fearful of losing their market share have already taken action to prevent public involvement in their business. From a policy perspective, a delicate balance should be struck between business growth and the government’s ability to provide services for everyone.
Broadband for All: A Way Forward
In particular, two pieces of legislation introduced last year might provide an interesting solution to this problem. First, the ‘Federal Spectrum Incentive Act’ would give the FCC tools to make more of the electromagnetic spectrum available for auction from federal agencies. As the single largest user of the spectrum, auctioning within the federal government could greatly assist private companies which are looking to carve out a greater market share and expand their business.
Second, the ‘Broadband Community Act of 2015’ could protect local and municipal governments by providing broadband services to individuals or businesses. Maintaining the government as a possible competitor will force larger providers to consider lowering prices or improving service to remain in business. If passed, this legislation would greatly assist needy communities that are often neglected by larger providers.
A lack of broadband internet access can stifle education, the economy, and the competitiveness of the U.S. labor force. Expanding broadband access to underserved areas continues to be the sole objective of several federal agencies, dozens of grant programs, and even public services at the municipal level. To improve these efforts, policymakers should pass legislation both to maintain the government’s ability to service neglected areas and to encourage the sale of unused spectrum to private companies that can turn it into broadband for consumer use. A comprehensive, long-term solution requires the interplay of private business’ innovation with the government’s resources and its all-encompassing mandate. This dual approach could be the key to meeting the goal of 100 percent household access by 2020.
 1 gigabit = 1,000 Mbps.
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