We must act urgently to make internet for all a reality

Many of us take it as a given that we can unlock our phones or open up our laptops and instantly be connected to the wealth of information that is the internet. It is not until we experience a Wi-Fi drop that we realize how dependent we are on high-speed access. But that momentary annoyance for most of us is unfortunately a constant reality for the millions who lack access to broadband, making it difficult for them to unlock the same opportunities that we may take for granted. It doesn’t have to be this way.

As we come out of the pandemic, the importance of connectivity in almost every aspect of life has become even stronger. And while we tend to associate infrastructure with highways, bridges, and clean drinking water, high-speed broadband itself is critical infrastructure — integral to our daily lives and the movement of information that underpins our economy. It is the foundation that will deliver our future, from smart-grid technology to health care to public safety.

That’s why lawmakers have been especially focused on the issue of broadband access. Just last year, leaders on both sides of the aisle came together to pass the landmark Infrastructure Act, which established the Broadband Equity, Access, and Deployment Program (BEAD) to lay the groundwork for widespread deployment and more equitable and affordable access to broadband services. .

On Nov. 18, the Federal Communications Commission released a new and detailed broadband coverage map of the US that will be critical in allocating BEAD’s $42.5 billion in funding. Its release is a significant step towards achieving broadband equity because it will better identify who still lacks fundamental access to our interconnected society. Broadband links us to essential resources and powers our schools, hospitals and workplaces. Broadband also has a positive impact on our local communities — promoting economic development and helping businesses reach new customers near and far.

Despite these benefits, however, our nation’s digital divide remains stubbornly present. The bipartisan infrastructure law rightly made high-speed internet a priority, because like clean water, broadband should be viewed as a fundamental human right. We applaud lawmakers for tackling this issue head on. Now is the time to help close this gap, and with this generational investment, we should in turn be making technology choices that are built to last at least a generation.

With virtually unlimited bandwidth, fiber optic connectivity is the fastest, most reliable, and most innovative solution for bridging the digital divide. Other options, like fixed wireless access, may be faster to deploy but require more upkeep, have limited capabilities, and require substantial new investment in a relatively short period. Fiber also requires less maintenance, is less expensive to operate, and is a more sustainable option.

Many rural areas long-served by community-based providers have been fortunate to keep pace with the advances in broadband seen in more urban areas. And even as the digital divide may remain stark in many other rural communities, progress is now being made in these places as well.

Consider the Upper Cumberland region of Tennessee. Thriving small towns, big lakes, deep woods, unforgettable mountain and valley views, and four seasons of relatively mild weather are attracting newcomers from near and far to take advantage of the low cost and high quality of living. Twin Lakes’ expanded fiber network has accommodated new residents’ and business owners’ need for high-speed connections, leading to economic growth in the region.

Service providers and suppliers are coming together to connect the unconnected by investing in innovation and ramping up production, but the private sector cannot do it alone. Last week, we were pleased to join the US Department of Commerce, the Telecommunications Industry Association, and Corning Incorporated in North Carolina to mark the one-year anniversary of the IIJA and explore how facilities like Corning’s are expanding manufacturing capacity and leading workforce development training to build towards internet for all.

We need more trained technicians so we can keep up with the growing demand, and we need lawmakers — from city hall to Capitol Hill — to match the speed and scale required to solve this critical issue. We applaud the FCC for releasing the updated broadband map so we know where the gaps in connections are currently. And we request state broadband offices to quickly publish their five-year action plans and digital equity plans so the industry can ensure the resources being deployed match the unique needs of the regions they serve.

We can all agree that every American should have access to broadband, regardless of their location, and now is the time to make that a reality. The goals set forth by the bipartisan infrastructure law were ambitious, but necessary, and bring us one step closer to closing the digital divide. Even as more rural areas are coming online in a meaningful way due to substantial fiber investment, there is much more work to be done and many more communities that can benefit from broadband. If we leverage all the tools at our disposal, along with private sector innovation and public sector resources, high-speed internet for all is well within our reach.

Shirley Bloomfield is CEO of The Rural Broadband Association and Gary Bolton is president and CEO of the Fiber Broadband Association.

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