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Our Broadband Moment–Acting Now and Looking Forward

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Eleven years ago Congress instructed the Federal Communications Commission to develop a national broadband plan to ensure that all Americans had affordable access to broadband and that America utilized broadband to advance a number of national purposes, including health care, education, job training, public safety, and economic growth. Ten years ago this week, the team delivered that plan. On the occasion of the anniversary, team alumni — along with Benton and a number of other public interest groups — had planned to get together to discuss what should be the agenda for a plan for the next decade and what lessons from the plan, and the process that created it, would be helpful as we look toward the future. Due to the coronavirus — a pandemic that is demonstrating both the stengths and weaknesses of U.S. broadband — that event has been postponed. But over the coming days and weeks, we will be publishing notes from a number of people who were scheduled to speak at the event

Jon Sallet
          Sallet

It doesn’t feel like it emotionally, but today, March 19th, marks the earliest arrival of Spring since 1896 (also a presidential election year).

We are in a moment of intertwined public-health and economic crises; a time when immediate measures are in motion to protect our people and protect our ability to survive economically. Nothing is more important.

Congress will now consider a huge stimulus bill, which is right. That stimulus bill should include actions that build a lasting broadband future, which is necessary.

An essential tool for these critical times is broadband–broadband that reaches make-shift home offices; that becomes the doorway to a classroom; that allows people living alone to keep in contact with friends, family, and neighbors; that dispenses accurate health advice and healthcare; and that supplies the binge entertainment that allows our minds to wander, if only for a bit. Where I live, as in so many other places, the neighborhood has created a COVID-19 support group, organized and reaching people, of course, by email.

Last October–which seems like a long time ago–Benton issued Broadband for America’s Future: A Vision for the 2020s, presenting policies so that every person in America can use High-Performance Broadband. Not for the sake of broadband itself, but because none of America’s big challenges can be solved without it.  

Crises bend the arc of history, and these will as well. And because of its growing significance in our newly transformed lives, the public needs and leaders are starting to respond to longstanding challenges.  Among the many examples:

  • Private employers and government agencies are preparing for a workforce that largely teleworks;
  • Schools and libraries are finding new ways to put their broadband connections to work for their communities;
  • Medicare has expanded the use of telemedicine as private insurers expand compensation for the treatment of COVID-19 via telemedicine.
  • One major broadband service provider announced that its low-income offering will be raised to 25/3 Mbps, the Federal Communications Commission’s current definition of broadband, now and going forward; a wireless carrier has said that it will not apply data caps and other broadband providers are increasingly the availability of their broadband services.
  • The FCC has announced the the temporary release of spectrum to improve network capacity.

In times of crises, taking the long view is important. And that, of course, is the contribution of the National Broadband Plan, which took the long view in 2010. Consider just three of the critical goals the Plan identified:

  • At least 100 million U.S. homes should have affordable access to actual download speeds of at least 100 megabits per second and actual upload speeds of at least 50 megabits per second.
  • Every American should have affordable access to robust broadband service, and the means and skills to subscribe if they so choose.
  • Every American community should have affordable access to at least 1 gigabit per second broadband service to anchor institutions such as schools, hospitals and government buildings.

The National Broadband Plan showed the way and it has stood the test of time. But we are being tested anew and we must, as a nation, respond with a broadband plan robust enough to withstand the challenges and seize the opportunities of this new, and already frighteningly novel, decade.

Deployment. Putting aside affordability, the download goal–100 Mbps to at least 100 million homes, has likely been met. According to FCC data, more than 90% of Americans across the nation (about 115 million homes) now have access to this download speed. And 20.5 million homes have access to all-fiber networks, easily capable of providing 1 Gbps symmetrical service.

But upload speeds are a different story. The cable companies that reach at least 90% of households across America generally require costumers to subscribe to service packages with at least 500 Mbps downloads to receive 50 Mbps upload speeds. Only fiber offers the truly symmetrical service capable of satisfying last decade’s goal.

For the next decade, we not only need networks that go faster and farther, we need networks that support symmetrical upload and download speeds – to meet the needs of farmers, who need to share information on the productivity of their fields, in-home patients who send diagnostic data on their physical status, and workers who ship files of significant size.

But now we also must ensure High-Performance Broadband reaches all of America.  With our newfound challenges at hand, we need federal funds to begin flowing for faster deployment. The new challenge is to reach all of America with High-Performance Broadband. Federal funds will be flowing for deployment – perhaps even faster as part of stimulus or economic-recovery legislation. But it is critical that money to build new networks be well-spent on connections that will stand the test of time.

In our report, we say that it is critical to provide High-Performance Broadband because, we predicted, demand will grow over the next decade. Given the coronavirus pandemic, we may have been off by ten years.

As near as we can tell in this fast-moving environment, at least two-thirds of the nation’s 56 million students are already subject to school closings, and they depend upon broadband to continue their education online. Dozens of top universities have decided to switch to online-only classes. The Office of Personnel Management and Defense Department have each issued broad policy statements urging the nation’s 2.1 million civilian employees to adhere to social distancing guidance by teleworking, while certain agencies, such as the Securities and Exchange Commission, have moved their entire staff online.

And many major companies–including Amazon, Microsoft, Google, Facebook, Pfizer, and Twitter, the Washington Post and the New York Times–are either mandating or strongly urging employees to work from home.  J.P. Morgan begin its telecommuting strategy weeks ago, and other major companies, like Citibank, have followed suit. And this is just the beginning.

To rise to these challenges, we need investments in scalable networks that not only meet today’s need, but that can meet the demand of the decade. A good baseline starting point for today is 100/100 Mbps–the point at which the industry experts with whom we’ve talked believe are essential for today, and scalable for tomorrow, using technologies that are capable of being upgraded as demand grows over the next decade.

We must avoid spending federal dollars building soon-to-be obsolete and unscalable networks. And we’re off to a bad start. The FCC is planning (without adequate data) to spend $16 billion for networks that can be as slow as only 25/3Mbps or 50/5 Mbps. The FCC is rushing ahead without the data to identify all the places in the country that should be eligible for this funding with restrictions that appear to prevent states that are leading the way from participating. 

That’s backwards. Instead of limiting participation, to the maximum extent possible, federal and state programs should up the ante – working in concert as force multipliers to advance high speed scalable networks where we know it is needed.

To the maximum extent possible, federal and state programs should up the ante–spending public dollars to construct slow networks will not get the job done over the course of the next decade.

Competition: We need to ensure everyone has affordable access to broadband, but “affordable access” has two critical dimensions and the first is competition. Where prices are artificially high as a result of limited competition, some people pay too much and other people can’t afford broadband at all. But right now, the drumbeat of “overbuilding” [hyperlink to competition speech] is itself artificially limiting broadband choices. Of course, the first priority for funding should always be to build broadband where there is none, but current events have shown that places with inadequate networks need to be a priority as well.  

So what are these inadequate networks?  According to the FCC data, which must be improved, there are about 10 million Americans who have access to speeds from 10/1 up to, but not including, 25/3. And another 12.7 million Americans who can get 25 but not 100 Mbps download speeds.

Think of a family at home today–adults working and videoconferencing, a K-12 student with online homework, a college student returned home to finish the semester with virtual classes. Then multiply that by many kinds of households and ask: Are today’s internet networks up to the task to provide the ubiquitous demands that suddenly confront them?

Meanwhile, fixed broadband plans have been getting more expensive. The Wall Street Journal reported last summer that ISPs are driving customers to higher-priced plans. Several major ISPs have begun to remove slower, lower-cost broadband options, such as 25/3 Mbps service. Nearly half of the U.S. population (45%) lacks access to a low-price wired broadband offering.

Yet right now, the USDA ReConnect program will not give grants to places that have 10/1 Mbps service – which isn’t even considered “broadband” under the FCC’s current working definition. The FCC’s planned rural broadband program bars funding to any area that has 25/3 Mbps, even though that speed is unlikely to be adequate over the next decade. Depending on household needs for online schooling, healthcare and telework, especially through videoconferencing, those speeds may not even be adequate for what we need in place this year. States like Minnesota and Washington have shown the way: they prioritize areas like these areas with no broadband but specifically allow funding in areas that have inadequate service, too.

And to the extent that the opposition to “overbuilding” rests on the limitations of federal funding, the federal government needs to spend the money necessary to connect the country. With predictions that we are headed for a downturn even worse than the Great Recession, Congress will certainly act to kickstart economic activity.

Stimulus legislation should spur economic activity and serve the cause of competition by preempting laws that bar municipalities from experimenting with different forms of private-public collaboration to provide broadband and broadband choices. Congress should ensure that federal funding includes support for open access, middle-mile  networks, which can dramatically cut the cost of reaching residences. And the FCC should ensure that federally-subsidized connections, as to schools and libraries, can be expanded to nearby neighborhoods without any charge to the relevant federal program.

But the bottom line is this: in the 2020s, everyone in the U.S. should be able to select broadband service that is the product of real competition offering true choices for price, quality and innovation.

Affordability and Adoption: The second component of affordability relates to low-income people who don’t have the resources to pay even commercially-reasonable prices. While 73% subscribe at home, another  17% cannot afford to pay for both a smartphone and home broadband service.

As we explain in our report, low-income people can only afford to pay about $10 per month for broadband. For example, nine focus groups of low-income residents in Kansas and Maine showed that few would subscribe to broadband at $50 per month but many would do so at $10 per month.  A Benton report published in 2015 similarly suggests that $10 per month would be affordable. One set of participants told researchers that affording even $20 per month would be difficult. For those on limited monthly incomes, even a $15 per month price point for internet competes with other utility bills such as phone, electricity, and even the cost of food.

Emergency legislation must address this affordability challenge and the needs of low-income Americans–especially at a time when so many people who work for small businesses, restaurants, hotels, and retail outlets are losing their jobs at unprecedented rates. To help meet this challenge, right now, Congress can boost the availability of the current Lifeline program (which is overwhelmingly used for mobile connections) by:

  • Expanding the Lifeline program with additional funding that makes robust, fixed broadband truly affordable at about $10/month,
  • Requiring that federally-funded networks become Lifeline providers, and
  • Ensuring that Lifeline has the legal authority to support broadband.

And as part of any funding of the construction of new networks, Congress can require that any federally-funded network must:

  • Provide a $10/month broadband service for eligible low-income people (Benton suggests 50/50 Mbps with unlimited capacity); $10/month for low-income for real broadband meets the traditional Lifeline test for affordability.
  • Provide any user with a reasonably-priced broadband service (Benton suggest 50/50 Mbps with unlimited capacity for $50/month). For people who don’t qualify as low-income, $50 represents a competitive entry price in major markets and has been demonstrated as viable.

Of course, the National Broadband Plan advanced the goal that “Every American should have affordable access to robust broadband service, and the means and skills to subscribe if they so choose.” The affordability goal has not been met, but neither has the goal of digital equity. And it must also be a priority for any forward-looking legislation.

The FCC should also engage immediately with fixed broadband providers to make their private efforts to reach low-income Americans as effective as possible. For example, large cable companies have agreed to open their public Wi-Fi hotspots in this time of crises, and Comcast has announced that the performance of its low-income broadband offering will be increased to 25/3 Mbps permanently. But not all fixed broadband providers have taken these steps and they should.

Broadband providers can also increase speeds and drop usage limits.

And emergency measures should last as long as the emergency. While some cable companies are offering sixty days of free Wi-Fi service, at the moment, it doesn’t look like sixty days will be nearly enough for Americans to get back on their feet.

Ensuring that everyone has the skills to use broadband serves the nation. We cannot forget that the more people that use broadband (like any other network), the more that everyone who uses broadband will benefit.

Community Anchor Institutions: The National Broadband Plan said, “Every American community should have affordable access to at least 1 gigabit per second broadband service to anchor institutions such as schools, hospitals and government buildings.”

We are not where we need to be, in two obvious respects.

First is the connectivity to the buildings of community anchor institutions. As of last year, only 28-32 percent of K-12 schools met the goal the FCC established for 2018 of having 1 Mbps per student and staff (1 Gbps per 1,000 students and staff). Without access to those speeds, students can’t take full advantage of immersive learning technologies in every classroom every day, and schools cannot meet their new challenge of having to provide remote learning to at home students.

But that’s not enough. As learning technologies get more sophisticated, immersive, and as more teachers incorporate digital learning into more aspects of their day, The State Educational Directors Association (SETDA) has already recognized the need for higher standards to be met by the middle of the decade, for example, recommending that at least 1.4 Mbps per student be available in all school districts.

Thus, as Congress should include support for all community anchor institutions–not just schools, libraries and healthcare facilities–to get the bandwidth they will need for the next decade through the kind of competitive processes, including so-called special construction, that has driven down bandwidth pricing to schools and libraries over the last half-decade.

Second, today’s crises drive home (so to speak) the lesson that learning occurs in the mind, and not the physical location, of students. Benton urges that federal programs, including the E-Rate program, be expanded to reach students who lack broadband at home.

Now both Congress and the FCC must act. On Tuesday, the Schools, Health & Libraries Broadband (SHLB) Coalition asked the FCC to take both immediate and extended actions to ensure that community anchor institutions can reach their users, including students, and provide needed broadband in their communities. For example, the FCC should immediately order that schools and libraries can share their Wi-Fi networks with their communities.

A library in State College (PA), for example, has already posted this sign (photograph courtesy of Schlow Centre Region Library):

Schlow Centre Region Library

The purpose of the E-Rate program is reach students (and library users) not just buildings. When school districts are closed, then the E-Rate program should step in to provide funds so that students can connect, using whatever tools are available, subisides for subscriptions to broadband services, Wi-Fi hotpots, allowing public access to connectivity that reaches a school and library, and that can reach the community.

Emergency measures need to be coupled to long-term solutions. Congress should ensure that federal financial support to community anchor institutions, including E-Rate funds, can be used to ensure that low-income students have the connectivity they need to learn at home, that people with medical needs can be connected to their healthcare providers, and to empower community anchor institutions to allow broadband providers to connect to their networks to offer broadband to nearby residences at the provider’s separate expense. And, as discussed above, the Lifeline program should be expanded to provide support for fixed broadband.

All of these steps can work together. Deployment, competition, affordability/adoption and community anchor institutions are not a menu of choices. They form an essential agenda for action. There are details to be worked out, of course, to make sure that money flows quickly and to the right places and people in need. But the broadband principles are ready to go.

Our first priorities are our people and our economy. But this is also our broadband moment. And as we look back on this moment through the lens of history at the end of the decade, I am hopeful that we will see that we persevered, that we conquered disease and came back from adversity, and that we used the needs of the day to build the strengths of tomorrow–including with High Performance Broadband.  


Jonathan Sallet is a Benton Senior Fellow. He works to promote broadband access and deployment, to advance competition, including through antitrust, and to preserve and protect internet openness. He is the former-Federal Communications Commission General Counsel (2013-2016), and Deputy Assistant Attorney General for Litigation, Antitrust Division, US Department of Justice (2016-2017). ​

The Benton Institute for Broadband & Society is a non-profit organization dedicated to ensuring that all people in the U.S. have access to competitive, High-Performance Broadband regardless of where they live or who they are. We believe communication policy – rooted in the values of access, equity, and diversity – has the power to deliver new opportunities and strengthen communities.


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