Mike O’Rielly: Don’t Repeat Past Mistakes, or How to Wisely Spend Federal Broadband Money

Universal broadband has not been achieved, in part, because previous grant funding has often been misspent.

Mike O’Rielly: Don’t Repeat Past Mistakes, or How to Wisely Spend Federal Broadband Money
The author of this Expert Opinion is Michael O'Rielly, former Federal Communications Commissioner

For millions of Americans, high-speed Internet service has been a saving grace during the COVID-19 pandemic. This reality led Congress to authorize hundreds of billions that can be used to help everyone who wants broadband technology to have a reasonable opportunity of obtaining it – a long-running U.S. policy that remains unreached.

Universal broadband has not been achieved, in part, because previous grant funding has often been misspent.

I witnessed this fact in my over 25 years of public service – most recently as a commissioner at the Federal Communications Commission, as well as legislative staff roles in the U.S. Senate and House of Representatives. These positions gave me a front-row seat to government broadband initiatives, providing some insight of just how current policymakers can avoid past mistakes.

I’ve identified key principles that would not only help ensure broadband connectivity for all Americans who still need it.

Keep focus on unserved communities

Millions of Americans without broadband access tend to live in less populated and rural areas. In the past, traditional broadband providers couldn’t afford to build or upgrade networks in such harder-to-reach places.

While bringing unserved homes online can be extremely expensive, it is so worth it. I have personally talked with families before and after broadband builds and remember their uplifting and life changing stories.

Making this happen, however, will require the federal government to stay laser-focused on serving the truly unserved. Previous funding programs have strayed from this top priority, expanding broadband in places that already have it.

Beyond the caustic problems subsidized overbuilding causes, it’s hugely objectionable to spend funds on a second, third, or fourth provider when some Americans have nothing.

Address complex issues preventing broadband adoption

Policymakers must also focus on Americans who have access to broadband, but do not adopt it. Many Americans are economically challenged and can’t afford the cost. I’m encouraged that Congress has allocated over $20 billion in the last few years to help lower broadband costs for those most in need, and signs are that this funding may be having a real impact.

However, the broadband adoption problem extends beyond affordability. As studies make clear, many Americans have both access and the means to afford broadband but still decide not to subscribe. They are missing enormous benefits for themselves and, perhaps more importantly, their families.

Encouraging adoption requires an extensive investment of time and money, including partnering with local government agencies and community organizations. With necessary funding, these entities can pursue targeted outreach and systemic solutions to reduce the number of willing non-adopters.

Tackle deployment barriers

It is well known that other impediments – beyond funding – limit broadband expansion. For example, poles and rights-of-way are essential to bringing high-speed broadband to many unserved Americans. Yet too often, federal, state, and local policies fail to facilitate enough access to broadband providers.

Essentially, certain pole owners can block or vastly overcharge for access to or replace their poles. As a result, broadband deployment is delayed or cut short while costs skyrocket – all of which leaves vital communities unserved.

There are simple fixes that would help ensure timely and cost-efficient broadband deployment. Top of the list is requiring all pole and rights-of-way managers, notwithstanding structure or size, to comply with federal law, which helps govern rates, replacement, and approval processes.

Fixing pole attachment and right-of-way processes would help broadband providers bring service to missing neighborhoods.

Move quickly but not recklessly

As new government funding is made available, it is important to take stock of what does and doesn’t work before spending more. Yet, the ink was barely dry from the president’s pen when some in Congress were already talking about adding even more Federal broadband funding.

There are billions and billions of dollars dedicated for broadband that haven’t even been distributed yet.  Evaluating how the current spending works — prior to burdening Americans with additional debts — is the right course of action.

Taxpayers should expect that the billions in broadband funding now available is being used in the most efficient and effective ways possible. Expanding private sector networks in unserved areas, lowering the overall cost for those facing financial hardship, and methodically addressing adoption will bring the best outcomes and help the most Americans.

Michael O’Rielly is a visiting fellow at the Hudson Institute and a former Commissioner at the Federal Communications Commission. He was FCC Commissioner from 2013-2020 and has 20 years of Capitol Hill experience, including serving as Policy Advisor in the Office of the Senate Republican Whip. This Expert Opinion 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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