Many of us assume that we can unlock our phones or open our laptops and be instantly connected to the wealth of information that is the Internet. It’s only when we experience a decline in Wi-Fi that we realize how much we depend on high-speed access. But that momentary annoyance for most of us is sadly a constant reality for the millions who lack access to broadband, making it difficult for them to unlock the very opportunities we might take for granted. It doesn’t have to be like this.
As we come out of the pandemic, the importance of connectivity in almost every aspect of life has become even more evident. And while we tend to associate infrastructure with highways, bridges and clean drinking water, high-speed broadband itself is critical infrastructure, an integral part of our daily lives and the movement of information that underpins our economy. . It is the foundation that will shape our future, from smart grid technology to healthcare to public safety.
That is why lawmakers have focused particularly on the issue of broadband access. Just last year, leaders from both sides of the aisle gathered for approve the historic infrastructure lawwho established the Broadband Equity, Access and Deployment Program (BEAD) lay the foundations for widespread deployment and fairer and more affordable access to broadband services.
On November 18, the Federal Communications Commission released a new and detailed US broadband coverage map this 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 those who do not yet have critical access to our interconnected society. Broadband connects us to essential resources and powers our schools, hospitals and workplaces. Broadband also has a positive impact on our local communities: promote economic development and help businesses reach new customers near and far.
Despite these benefits, however, our nation’s digital divide remains stubbornly present. The bipartisan Infrastructure Act rightly made high-speed Internet a priority, because like clean water, broadband should be seen as a basic human right. We applaud lawmakers for tackling this issue head-on. Now is the time to help bridge this gap, and with this generational investment, we should in turn make 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 way to bridge the digital divide. Other options, such as fixed wireless access, may be faster to implement but are more maintenance-intensive, have limited capabilities, and require substantial new investment in a relatively short period. Fiber also requires less maintenance, is less expensive to operate, and it is a more sustainable option.
Many rural areas long served by community-based providers have been fortunate enough to keep up with the broadband advances seen in more urban areas. And while the digital divide may remain stark in many other rural communities, progress is being made there too.
Consider the Upper Cumberland region of Tennessee. Thriving small towns, large lakes, dense forests, unforgettable mountain and valley vistas, 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 life. Twin Lakes’ expanded fiber network met the high-speed connection needs of new residents and business owners, leading to economic growth in the region.
Vendors and service providers are coming together to connect the unconnected by investing in innovation and scaling 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 celebrate the one year anniversary of the IIJA and explore how facilities like Corning’s are expanding productive capacity and driving training for workforce development build towards the Internet for all.
We need more skilled technicians so we can keep up with growing demand, and we need lawmakers, from City Hall to Capitol Hill, to match the speed and scale needed to solve this critical problem. We applaud the FCC for releasing the updated broadband map so you know where the gaps in your connections currently are. And we’re calling on state broadband offices to quickly release their five-year action plans and digital equity plans so the industry can ensure the resources it uses match the specific needs of the regions they serve.
We 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 by the bipartisan Infrastructure Act were ambitious, but necessary, and bring us one step closer to closing the digital divide. Even as more rural areas are getting significantly online thanks to substantial investments in fiber, there is much more work to be done and many more communities can benefit from broadband. When we leverage all the tools at our disposal, coupled with private sector innovation and public sector resources, high-speed internet for all is within our reach.
Shirley Bloomfield is CEO of The Rural Broadband Association and Gary Bolton is president and CEO of Fiber Broadband Association.