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Cornell University Cornell Brooks Public Policy

The Collective Will Is There to Solve the Rural Broadband Challenge

February 18, 2021 | By Stephen V. Smith, founder and VP of Broadband Strategies of WordSouth, a content marketing company that helps rural broadband and electric providers tell their stories, market their services, and train their people.

Historians will long draw lines back to this moment, examining how the pandemic served as a point on humanity’s timeline after which so many things were different. This will certainly be true of public health, work, education, and medicine. I believe it will be especially true of broadband.

In the past two weeks alone, I sat in on no less than five webinars and conference calls centered around the subject — from broadband’s role in rural economic development to how diverse communities are using broadband to connect. The central theme is clear: broadband is vital and we must extend it to every American as soon as possible.

This challenge, of course, is multifaceted. While estimates vary, it is safe to say at least 20 million people in the U.S. lack access to broadband. Layered upon that are the issues of affordability (can they pay for it?) and adoption (do they know how to use it?). Fortunately, we are seeing momentum on all fronts.

In terms of access, incumbent telecommunications providers — many of them cooperatives — have been deploying internet services for years. The Obama Administration’s American Recovery and Reinvestment Act accelerated the construction of fiber networks across rural America. The Trump Administration’s ReConnect program invested over a billion dollars in rural broadband, with another $635 million allocated for a third round in the Consolidated Appropriations Act of 2021. Broadband deployment as a connectivity issue and as a job creation tool is central to President Biden’s infrastructure and economic growth plans.

The FCC is currently scrutinizing the bids of those identified as winners in its first Rural Digital Opportunity Fund auction, with the potential to award $9.2 billion to connect more than 5 million unserved homes and businesses. The list of awardees reflects the trend of new providers entering the space, particularly electric cooperatives who are expanding their mission to include broadband. A majority of states have stepped up as well, establishing broadband offices and creating funding programs to partner with internet service providers.

On the affordability front, millions in 2020 CARES Act dollars went toward subsidizing broadband service to low-income households. The 2021 appropriations act includes $3.2 billion to establish the Emergency Broadband Connectivity Fund, a program the FCC is charged with standing up in short order. The program will offer eligible households a monthly discount of up to $50 off standard broadband rates (up to $75 on Tribal lands), while offering broadband providers a reimbursement of up to $100 if they supply eligible households with a connected device.

Adoption is being addressed at many levels, from training programs offered by community organizations and the broadband providers themselves to nationwide initiatives such as the National Digital Inclusion Alliance.

As a result of the pandemic, there is no longer a question of whether broadband is essential. There are efforts across the board to get people connected, and the need for broadband stands as one of the few issues elected officials of all political stripes support. We are witnessing a watershed moment when the collective will of the nation is focused on solving the broadband challenge once and for all. This will not happen in 2021 or 2022, but America is more firmly on track than ever before, moving toward the day when every household, every business, every person has access to a reliable broadband network.