The Covid pandemic effectively ended the argument over whether broadband is an essential service or a luxury. After clarifying the gaps through the earlier policy recommendations, a nationwide bidding process is the most efficient process for elevating the best solutions to close gaps. Banning the bans on municipal broadband allows for cities and towns to develop a localized approach—be that a public, private or hybrid solution.
Given the political bickering and polarization clogging progress in DC and the complexity and scope of the challenge, we must remain open to more approaches to achieving universal broadband, rather than preemptively limiting options. To that end, an important first step is to put an end to lobbyist-led municipal broadband bans at the state level. For some municipalities, particularly those long neglected by the ISPs, municipal broadband is the best solution. For others, a public-private partnership might offer a more appealing approach. Whatever the solution, accountability must be a key element.
Through better data, and an adequately funded and empowered FCC, the government can play a pivotal role in helping states and localities identify the major gaps of the digital divide: access, inclusion, digital proficiency, and institutions.
The access issue persists because the lowest-hanging fruit—the areas where the return on investment was most favorable to the ISPs—has already been captured, and areas with sparse populations or challenging geographies do not make business sense without significant government support. The affordability issue, which disproportionately plagues urban communities, is not only a challenge for households but presents an impediment for ISPs to invest in high-speed broadband if they do not expect adequate demand. Maintaining digital proficiency is a lifelong pursuit, perhaps particularly well-suited to a public-private approach. While educational institutions can help students develop these foundational skills, employers have a duty to train and develop their employees to stay abreast of technological change.
The federal government can organize bids soliciting the best solution for each gap area—access, affordability, or digital literacy—and in consultation with local partners, set targets and tie subsidies, grants, and incentives for state and local governments to meet them. In addition, the administration can require more accountability and transparency from the ISPs through ending hidden fees, continuing to work toward a more comprehensive, timely national broadband map, and working closely with local partners to monitor progress.
According to Broadband Now, 18 US states have implemented laws that either prohibit or restrict local communities from building and creating their own broadband networks. Though such legislations vary from state to state, they ought to be repealed as they act as barriers that restrict competition and hinder the efforts of municipalities to bridge the digital divide at the grassroots level. While Congress has implemented broadband programs at the federal level, states require additional support in their efforts to formulate and implement comprehensive broadband initiatives. Towards this, a universal template that offers possible approaches for all states can help them in adopting sustainable solutions based on their specific needs and challenges. Through such complementary approaches, states can exchange ideas and share lessons learned from their initiatives.