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Carri Bennet: Biden’s Broadband Plan is Key to Spurring Rural Economic Development, Jobs and Manufacturing

The American Jobs Plan, President Joe Biden’s infrastructure plan, includes $100 billion to ensure broadband availability to every single American at affordable rates. This means building more broadband in rural areas.

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The author of this Expert Opinion is Carri Bennet of the law firm of Womble Bond Dickinson

Editor’s Note: Author Carri Bennet also participated in the Broadband Breakfast Live Online discussion on “How to Spend Broadband Infrastructure” on April 7, 2021.

The American Jobs Plan, President Joe Biden’s infrastructure plan, includes $100 billion to ensure broadband availability to every single American at affordable rates. This means building more broadband in rural areas to help close the rural/urban digital divide.

It also means making existing broadband affordable and accessible for those with low income. Broadband is critical to spur economic development in rural areas. If high-speed broadband is available in a rural area along with solid transportation infrastructure (roads and/or railways), then businesses can thrive.

Now that the administration has passed the baton to Congress to pass legislation, details on the distribution of the $100 billion, along with measures to prevent waste, fraud and abuse, still need to be ironed out.

While the plan is purposefully vague, it does propose that local communities be involved in the process. Allowing local community governments to define the areas that need broadband coverage makes sense, as those living and working in the communities know specifically where broadband is lacking and have a strong desire to see those areas served.

Communities don’t need to take on the task of building broadband networks alone

However, this doesn’t mean local communities have to take on the arduous task of building the broadband networks. Building broadband networks is not for the faint of heart. Network build-out requires project management skills and experience and should not be undertaken by novices.

It is best for the local communities to work with professionally staffed companies who are in the business of building broadband networks. Likewise, local communities should not be left to operate the networks after they are built because network operation is not part of their core competencies.

So while President Biden’s infrastructure plan includes enormously beneficial support for a connected America, the best legislation Congress can pass for broadband support will include provisions that prepare rural America’s digital infrastructure for the future. Future-proofing broadband means pushing fiber out as far as possible and utilizing wireless technology that can be upgraded through software, rather than changing out hardware — think open interfaces and interoperability, not proprietary systems that lock a wireless broadband provider to one vendor.

Assessing the current state of our digital infrastructure

In order to effectively distribute support for broadband deployment, we need to first determine what is out there — what’s the current state of our digital infrastructure, especially in rural and Tribal areas. While the FCC is working on gathering data to improve the broadband data maps, the infrastructure package will also have to address the definition of unserved or underserved areas, including defining what communities meet the definition of “rural” and what are acceptable upload and download speeds or latency to meet the definition of high-speed internet. Whether or not we should pin that benchmark to 25/25 Megabits per second (Mbps) symmetrical or 100/100 Mbps, the key will be in the definitions’ and technologies’ ability to grow and change.

President Biden ran on the campaign promise of “building back better,” and better for rural America’s broadband infrastructure will mean building a flexible foundation for broadband technology’s growth and evolvement, as well as establishing the foundation for economic growth within our communities that broadband brings.

High-speed internet service will be the force bringing economic stimulus to rural communities in the form of reshoring manufacturing jobs that can be located in rural areas, migrating some of the urban workforce to rural areas so that those who can work remotely can have more space and lower living costs, and improving crop and livestock yield though precision agriculture. With all of this comes new jobs, homes, schools and hospitals to serve rural communities that have languished. When rural America prospers, so does the rest of America. It’s the infrastructure for economic prosperity, plain and simple.

As daily life becomes more and more dependent on the internet, future-proofing broadband infrastructure becomes more important, allowing us to rely on the same foundational infrastructure 20, 50 or 100 years from now. We need to prioritize and future-proof our networks with fiber and wireless architecture that uses open interfaces and interoperability solutions.

Choosing the right method to distribute billions of dollars for broadband

The method Congress chooses to distribute the billions of dollars that the American Jobs Plan proposes will also be crucial. Grants will be much more effective and accessible for communities in rural America. When sending funds to a community for broadband deployment, the federal government will need to vet and ensure companies have the resources, knowledge and experience they need to successfully complete the build-out and to keep the service operating. We can’t afford to watch another Rural Digital Opportunity Fund auction fail and turn into yet another race to the bottom that will leave unserved or underserved communities without broadband, as many RDOF auction winners struggle to complete an impossible build-out.

The best solution is community grants that fund third parties, who have the expertise and experience, to build and operate the network. In the case of many service providers throughout rural America, the company may possess a natural monopoly, so the American Jobs Plan will need to recognize and support the service providers already operating throughout rural America — helping them to continue their hard work, connecting and expanding their network.

The plan does a good job to identify affordability as another barrier standing in the way of nationwide connectivity. While the Administration vows to work with Congress to have providers lower prices to more affordable rates, a portion of the puzzle involves ensuring rural service providers can continue to operate after the build-out, especially if pricing for the high-speed internet service needs to be affordable and on same footing as urban areas.

Ultimately, there’s no question the American Jobs Plan will help to bridge the digital divide. But it is simply a stepping stone in the much-needed, larger mobilization of our resources to fill the gaps and support economic development in rural America, using high-speed internet.

There is a lot of money proposed for broadband deployment, but those billions of dollars will be spread out over eight years. And in those years, we will need to focus on ensuring that our networks are built for the future.

Carri Bennet is an outspoken advocate for small rural carriers, having battled with regulators and large companies for more than 30 years to ensure that small rural businesses have a seat at the table and a strong voice in Washington. Bennet launched her own successful boutique communications and technology law firm prior to joining Womble Bond Dickinson, and she also serves as outside counsel for the Rural Wireless Association. She represents her clients before the FCC, state regulatory agencies, the courts and Congress, and has testified before the FCC, Congress and the courts on rural wireless issues. This piece is exclusive to Broadband Breakfast.

Broadband Breakfast accepts commentary from informed observers of the broadband scene. Please send pieces to commentary@breakfast.media. The views expressed in Expert Opinion pieces do not necessarily reflect the views of Broadband Breakfast and Breakfast Media LLC.

Broadband Breakfast is a decade-old news organization based in Washington that is building a community of interest around broadband policy and internet technology, with a particular focus on better broadband infrastructure, the politics of privacy and the regulation of social media. Learn more about Broadband Breakfast.

Broadband's Impact

Julio Fuentes: Access Delayed Was Access Denied to the Poorest Americans

Big Telecom companies caused months and months of delays in the rollout of the Emergency Broadband Benefit.

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The author of this Expert Opinion is Julio Fuentes, president and CEO of the Florida State Hispanic Chamber of Commerce

Remember when millions of students in dense urban areas and less-populated rural areas weren’t dependent on home broadband access so they could attend school?

Remember when we didn’t need telehealth appointments, and broadband access in urban and outlying areas was an issue that could be dealt with another day?

Remember when the capability to work remotely in underserved communities wasn’t the difference between keeping a job and losing it?

Not anymore.

Education. Health care. Employment. The COVID-19 pandemic affected them all, and taking care of a family in every respect required broadband access and technology to get through large stretches of the pandemic.

You’d think the Federal Communications Commission and its then-acting chairwoman would have pulled out all the stops to make sure that this type of service was available to as many people as possible, as soon as possible — especially when there’s a targeted federally funded program for that important purpose.

Alas, by all appearances, some Big Telecom companies threw their weight around and caused months and months of delays, denying this life-changing access to the people who needed it most — at the time they needed it most.

The program in question is the federally funded Emergency Broadband Benefit program. The EBB offered eligible households — often the poorest Americans — a discount of up to $50 per month toward broadband service, and those households can also receive a one-time discount of up to $100 to purchase a laptop or other computer if they contribute just $10 to the purchase. Huge value and benefits for technology that should no longer be the privilege of only those with resources.

Seems fairly straightforward, right?

It should have been. But FCC Chairwoman Jessica Rosenworcel slammed on the brakes. Why? It turns out that Big Telecom giants wanted more time to get ready to grab a piece of the action — a lot more time. While the program was ready to go in February, it didn’t actually launch until several months later.

That’s months of unnecessary delay.

But it wasn’t providers who were waiting. It was Americans in underserved and rural areas, desperate for a connection to the world.

Here are some numbers for Rosenworcel to consider:

  • As recently as March, 58% of white elementary students were enrolled for full-time in-person instruction, while only 36% of Black students, 35% of Latino students, and 18% of Asian peers were able to attend school in person.
  • Greater portions of families of color and low-income families reportedly fell out of contact with their children’s schools during the pandemic. In one national survey in spring 2020, nearly 30% of principals from schools serving “large populations of students of color and students from lower-income households” said they had difficulty reaching some of their students and/or families — in contrast to the 14% of principals who said the same in wealthier, predominantly white schools.
  • In fall 2020, only 61% of households with income under $25,000 reported that the internet was “always available” for their children to use for educational purposes; this share was 86% among households with incomes above $75,000.

And all of these numbers cut across other key issues such as health care and maintaining employment.

Access delayed was access denied to the poorest, most isolated Americans during the worst pandemic in generations.

Allowing Big Telecom companies to get their ducks in a row (and soak up as many federal dollars as possible) left poor and rural Americans with no options, for months. Who knows how many children went without school instruction? Or how many illnesses went undiagnosed? Or how many jobs were terminated?

This delay was appalling, and Chairwoman Rosenworcel should have to answer for her actions to the Senate Commerce Committee as it considers her nomination for another term as commissioner. Rather than expedite important help to people who needed it most, she led the agency’s delay — for the benefit of giant providers, not the public.

Hopefully, the committee moves with more dispatch than she did in considering her actual fitness to be FCC chairwoman for another term.

Julio Fuentes is president and CEO of the Florida State Hispanic Chamber of Commerce. This piece is exclusive to Broadband Breakfast.

Broadband Breakfast accepts commentary from informed observers of the broadband scene. Please send pieces to commentary@breakfast.media. The views reflected in Expert Opinion pieces do not necessarily reflect the views of Broadband Breakfast and Breakfast Media LLC.

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Broadband's Impact

Sunne McPeak: Achieving True Digital Equity Requires Strong Leadership and Sincere Collaboration

Collaboration between community leaders will be essential in ensuring success of the Biden infrastructure bill in California.

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The author of this Expert Opinion is Sunne Wright McPeak

This week, President Joe Biden signed the infrastructure bill, which includes $65 billion for expanding broadband deployment and access for all Americans.

The national plan is described as the most significant infrastructure upgrade in the three decades since the Cold War. “This is an opportunity to create an Eisenhower national highway system for the information age,” says a former White House National Security Council senior director.

For California – the nation’s largest state – it means a minimum $100 million for broadband infrastructure that is designed to expand high-speed internet access for at least 545,000 residents, particularly in unserved and underserved communities, according to the White House. The federal funding will support California’s $6 billion broadband infrastructure plan.

Closing the digital divide and achieving true digital equity requires strong leadership and sincere collaboration among public agencies, internet service providers and civic leaders to seize this unique opportunity to achieve strategic priorities in education, telehealth, transportation and economic development. The 2021 USC-CETF Statewide Survey on Broadband Adoption highlighted that a significant number of Californians will be left behind because they are unable to access the internet and other digital functionality needed for vital activities.

Now, the question is how to ensure the public’s funds will be used as effectively and efficiently as possible. California must implement a thoughtful, aggressive strategy that will maximize immediate impact and optimize return on investment. Separately, for several years, CETF has been calling for broadband deployment as a green strategy for sustainability; that urgency only grows in the wake of the COP26 climate meetings. As leaders begin to make historic investments, they should embrace these key principles for action:

  • Prioritize and drive infrastructure construction to the hardest-to-reach residents — rural unserved areas, tribal lands, and poor urban neighborhoods — and then connect all locations, especially anchor institutions (schools, libraries and health care facilities), along the path of deployment.
  • Require open-access fiber middle-mile infrastructure with end-user internet speeds sufficient to support distance learning and telehealth.
  • Strive to achieve ubiquitous deployment in each region to avoid cherry picking for more lucrative areas.
  • Encourage coordination among local governments and regional agencies to streamline permitting and achieve economies of scale.
  • Develop an open competitive process to achieve the most cost-effective investment of new dollars by optimizing use of existing infrastructure that ratepayers and taxpayers already have built.

To learn more, please contact Sunne Wright McPeak at sunne.mcpeak@cetfund.org

Sunne Wright McPeak is President and CEO of California Emerging Technology Fund, a statewide non-profit foundation with 15 years of experience addressing broadband issues to close the Digital Divide in California. This piece is exclusive to Broadband Breakfast.

Broadband Breakfast accepts commentary from informed observers of the broadband scene. Please send pieces to commentary@breakfast.media. The views reflected in Expert Opinion pieces do not necessarily reflect the views of Broadband Breakfast and Breakfast Media LLC. 

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Broadband's Impact

Frank Gornick: Valley Leaders Join State to Bring Ubiquitous Broadband to the San Joaquin Valley

Bringing internet capability to communities throughout the San Joaquin Valley is the focus of a new effort.

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The author of this Expert Opinion is Frank Gornick.

As the pandemic begins to recede, it leaves behind warnings of weak links in our overall health as a functioning society. The signs are everywhere: health care, water, infrastructure, education, supply chains and equitable access to technology and opportunity.

Under the guidance of the San Joaquin Regional Broadband Consortium, and with support from the California Emerging Technology Fund, our goal is to bring ubiquitous broadband to the eight counties that compromise the San Joaquin Valley, among the most underserved regions of the state and underestimated in ability to lead and drive change.

And we will do it within a year — a bold but doable achievement.

As a start, we are announcing a new partnership, #SanJoaquinValleyNetwork, which will seek the necessary resources to deliver a world class internet to enhance the economic and human conditions because our leaders want no less for our citizens.

To be clear, this is a significant undertaking with many moving parts. Therefore, understanding the players and the territory is essential.

Understanding the infrastructure landscape is critical

It begins by identifying what internet infrastructure currently exists and assessing the internet’s capacity in the eight counties. Where is it robust and, where is it lacking.

Why this year? There is political will and the funds to do it.

In July, the governor signed SB 156, which authorizes the state to work with counties, internet service providers, school districts, hospitals, libraries, businesses, manufacturers, farmers and municipalities. The goal is to develop a statewide open-access, middle-mile broadband network, including creating rural exchange points with last-mile access to homes, businesses and essential services.

The good news is that we are building upon the existing network, not starting over. Therefore, these expenditures will be much more efficient and effective.

In addition to the clearly stated intent of the legislation, state leaders have provided $6 billion for implementation.

Continuing into November, the San Joaquin Valley counties will be organizing and planning under the auspices of SJVRBC to obtain the maximum amount of financial assistance to implement the goals of #SanJoaquinValleyNetwork.

Applying for federal grant dollars in San Joaquin Valley

As this effort gets underway, #SanJoaquinValleyNetwork will begin applying for federal and state dollars to realize our goal, bringing ubiquitous broadband to the Valley in a year.

What outcomes can we expect? First, as we have learned from the pandemic, we must do more to expand deployment and access because it is critical for so many people to have reliable, robust connections to the services they need and to access new opportunities. However, not everyone has equal access.

The internet has provided greater access to health care, but not everyone has equal access, particularly seniors, low income households and rural residents. Students at all grades for the past 18 months have had to adjust to online learning, but not everyone has equal access or capacity required to succeed and gain the skills to join the workforce of the future.

Our economic engine, the agricultural industry, has relied on breakthrough technologies that depend on high speed internet, and dependability and access to the internet is necessary for growth and productivity.

The investment to extend broadband to the most remote and underserved communities will raise the standard of living of many — and the quality of life for everyone in the San Joaquin Valley.

Billions of dollars in California and across the country will be invested in deploying internet infrastructure to rural, tribal and urban neighborhoods in poverty. Construction of publicly subsidized, open-access middle-mile infrastructure that includes last-mile deployment achieves the best of both objectives — ensuring immediate internet access for businesses and residents. That’s why business, education and civic leaders throughout the San Joaquin Valley are applauding this effort.

We urge leaders in Kern, Tulare, Kings, Fresno, Madera, Merced, Stanislaus, and San Joaquin counties to join this effort.

For more information on the #SanJoaquinValleyPartnership, please contact Dr. Frank Gornick at frankgornick@comcast.net, 559-281-5200.

Dr. Frank Gornick is the chancellor emeritus of West Hills Community College District, where he served as chancellor for 16 years. He is the project manager of the #SanJoaquinValleyNetwork and lives in Lemoore. This piece is reprinted from The Fresno Bee with permission.

Broadband Breakfast accepts commentary from informed observers of the broadband scene. Please send pieces to commentary@breakfast.media. The views reflected in Expert Opinion pieces do not necessarily reflect the views of Broadband Breakfast and Breakfast Media LLC.

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