President Joe Biden’s trillion-dollar infrastructure bill promises the largest public investment in telecommunications in the country’s history. Of the $65 billion allocated for high-speed internet—broadband—$42.45 billion is earmarked specifically for deployment projects through state grants. Now that the legislation has passed the House, and Biden will sign it into law Monday, all hopes for broadband connectivity now turn to the National Telecommunications and Information Administration, which has 180 days to write the rules governing the Broadband Equity, Access, and Deployment Program. Then, states will administer the grants. These decisions will define the futures of un- and under-connected communities throughout the country, and especially those in rural, remote, and tribal areas, which lack basic broadband infrastructure. For this aspect of the digital divide to be addressed, and for a major driver of America’s regional inequality to be alleviated, it is crucial that the NTIA’s decisions prioritize local providers.
More than 120 million people in the United States lack access to the internet at broadband-defined speeds, according to Microsoft. Ahead of the NTIA’s rule-making period, it is crucial that advocates and elected officials push for the agency to prioritize local broadband providers over large-scale, national providers who have done little to connect the country.
The NTIA can provide guidance to states as to local eligibility priority so long as it does not conflict with the infrastructure bill. States, meanwhile, can actively prioritize local providers in their call for grant submissions. More “points” can be awarded to applications that come from local private providers, municipalities, cooperatives, and public-private partnerships, as is the case with broadband grants from the USDA’s ReConnect Program (with the exception of local private providers in the case of the USDA). For a decade, large, national providers were given their chance to connect the country, and they failed. From 2015 to 2021, the FCC gave the 10 largest telecommunications companies $1 billion a year to connect hard-to-reach, rural, and high-cost areas. What we ended up with was a patchwork of slow, outdated networks, with expensive subscription fees and spotty coverage. Even this was too much for some telecom companies, two of which failed to meet their basic deployment commitments in 2018 and 2019. Broadband’s next moment must be local.
During the pandemic, broadband access became nothing short of a life-or-death issue. As a consequence, Congress allocated billions of dollars for broadband deployment and affordability.
While the $65 billion earmarked for broadband in the infrastructure bill is a substantial and desperately needed amount, it’s very much the result of political compromise. The proposed amount in the president’s original American Jobs Plan was $100 billion for broadband, with $80 billion allocated specifically for deployment. Importantly, $80 billion is the amount the FCC estimated in 2017 would be necessary to connect the country with fiber optics—the best broadband technology available.
A second component of the broadband package that was left to the cutting block was language promoting and prioritizing “broadband networks owned, operated by, or affiliated with local governments, nonprofits, and cooperatives—providers with less pressure to turn profits and with a commitment to serving entire communities.” Instead, the measure incorporated language that simply forbids discrimination against such entities. The original language was heralded as a victory for local broadband in a country where 18 states inhibit or prohibit municipal broadband projects and where cable and telecom company lobbying is omnipresent at the state and federal levels. Since the FCC began subsidizing broadband deployment back in 2014, for instance, it has preferred to fund large providers like AT&T, CenturyLink, Frontier, Verizon, Windstream, and, most recently, Starlink, and neglect smaller and more nimble local and regional providers.
Local broadband providers—be they nonprofits, cooperatives, public/private partnerships, municipal and county networks, or privately held local and regional providers—are the unsung heroes of rural broadband. They are the ones connecting remote parts of the country with high-quality fiber optics and fixed wireless networks. Unfortunately, by the time the Senate passed the infrastructure bill back in August, the local language was abandoned. The House version did nothing to rectify this omission.
As I argue in a new book, Farm Fresh Broadband: The Politics of Rural Connectivity, local broadband is the best broadband, for four reasons. The first is history: When the Roosevelt administration made rural electrification a priority in 1935, it created the Rural Electrification Administration to encourage and fund the creation of local electric cooperatives. This program was incredibly successful, with rural connectivity rising from 30 to 96 percent in 15 years. The REA program was so successful that it was extended to rural telephony in 1949. Again, it experienced tremendous success. Second, it leads to more community investment. Local providers, such as telephone and electric cooperatives like the Central Virginia Electric Cooperative in Nelson County, Virginia, the People’s Rural Telephone Co-op in eastern Kentucky, and Alliance Communications in South Dakota, see investment in high-quality broadband networks as an investment in the future of their communities. They are willing to take a much longer return on investment (sometimes over a decade) than investor-owned large, national providers that demand quarterly returns. The third reason is accountability: Local providers are known to and present in their communities. There’s a deep level of accountability when a provider can be spotted at the grocery store or at church. As the administrator of a Minnesota county told me when the county signed a fiber optic deal with a nearby telephone cooperative, “I wasn’t signing a deal with some guy in Texas. I was signing a deal with a neighbor.” The fourth, quite simply, is people: Local broadband providers understand, as I write in my book, that “at the end of the day, broadband is not about policy, politics, technology or money; it is about people.”
Municipalities, cooperatives, local and regional private providers, and public-private partnerships are the ones connecting rural America. They are precisely who policy makers should be championing. The Treasury Department understands this, writing in its guidelines for the $10 billion Capital Projects Fund from the American Rescue Plan Act, “Subrecipients may include co-operatives, electric utilities, and other entities that build or operate broadband networks, including networks that are owned, operated by, or affiliated with local governments.”
USDA’s ReConnect Program goes further, directly prioritizing “local governments, non-profits and cooperatives as applicants.” This language signals to the broadband community that the money will not just go to the largest providers—a heretofore recurring pattern, and problem, in American broadband funding programs.
Simply put, we must recover the emphasis on local broadband of the infrastructure bill, even though it was eliminated from the text. The NTIA and state broadband offices will have a chance to do that. It is the best way to make sure that the country—the whole country—can be connected.