Improved Broadband Access is Imperative for Economic Recovery

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American families needed affordable access to high-speed internet for education, job seeking, and quality of life even before the COVID pandemic drove much of everyday life online. But that transition has only exacerbated the huge gaps in affordable access — for millions of Americans, both rural and urban — which now threaten to slow the US recovery and impede long-term inclusive economic growth.

When the administration releases its proposed recovery legislation to follow the recently passed American Rescue Plan Act, expanding affordable broadband access should be a critical component of a real, bipartisan effort to modernize infrastructure and deliver broad-based economic growth and opportunity.

The administration should find willing partners in both parties. Congress long ago mandated that the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) achieve affordable access to broadband services for all Americans. Back in December, the Republican-led Senate enacted, with overwhelming bipartisan support, over $3 billion in temporary, COVID-crisis aid to make broadband more affordable for families. Earlier last year, the Senate Republican Policy Committee identified closing the digital divide as a priority.

The new administration should pick up this effort. The president campaigned for universal broadband in his “Build Back Better” economic agenda. Affordable access to truly highspeed internet for all families could present the two parties with an opportunity to work constructively together.

Past improvements in internet quality and access demonstrably expanded economic opportunity — particularly for mothers — and strengthened the nation’s pool of talented labor. Now, high-speed internet connectivity will make it easier and quicker for unemployed Americans to find better paying and more stable jobs and help the economy to recover.

It will also enable millions of Americans — particularly in the least densely populated areas — who lack access to reliable high-quality internet services to access economic opportunity and a better quality of life. Given that low-income households are both more likely to be suffering employment and earnings impacts from COVID and less likely to have affordable access to highspeed internet services compared to those households that had above median incomes prior to the COVID pandemic, many families are likely facing a compounded challenge. Full access to remote education, training, and employment will be especially critical in the communities hardest hit by the pandemic.

But to achieve long-term universal access, smart federal investment will not be enough. Policymakers must revisit rules that prevent the competition that would leverage the dynamism and innovation of the private market for internet services. For example, federal investments would be more effective if Congress eases requirements for providers to qualify as eligible telecommunications carriers, allowing a broader range of potential suppliers to compete for federal dollars. Congress should allow interested high-speed internet providers to coordinate their network expansions or upgrades with other publicly-funded infrastructure construction projects to lower costs and spur improvements in access.

Additionally, Congress can lead the way in ensuring better understanding of current highspeed internet use. The recently enacted Broadband DATA Act will improve the accuracy and detail of current service maps, but it did not go far enough in collecting information on the cost and affordability of available services. Policymakers and businesses could make better decisions if they had a more accurate and detailed understanding of how Americans are using the internet in their daily lives. Congress should fund more-detailed surveys on business and household internet service options, prices, purposes, and the devices needed to capitalize on them, to deliver a comprehensive, up-to-date understanding of the state, and importance, of consumer connectivity. 

Whether or not Congress acts, the FCC should move quickly to build the foundation of true universal access to highspeed internet by updating its standards — unchanged since 2015 — for what speeds qualify as broadband. There have been dramatic increases in individual data requirements for remote education, training, and work opportunities that are likely to continue to grow post-pandemic. Federal dollars should be focused on modern solutions and not wasted on substandard or soon-to-be-outdated networks.

In the same spirit, Congress should boost more-aggressive promotion of the “Broadband Facts” consumer label standard the FCC created in 2016 — whether through incentives for adoption or other means — to help consumers understand the quality of services they are paying for, and to spur consumer competition among providers on real value.

At a time when many Americans are newly dependent on reliable high-speed internet services in their daily life, policymakers are getting a vivid demonstration of the affordability and access barriers that will increasingly leave vulnerable families behind. In combination with federal investment, Congress and the Administration should take necessary steps to leverage competition and market forces to close gaps in affordable access to highspeed internet to support an economic recovery that delivers increasing prosperity for American families in the years ahead.

Peter Altabef is Chair and Chief Executive Officer of Unisys. Reece Kurtenbach is President, Chairman and Chief Executive Officer of Daktronics. The authors are Trustees of the Committee for Economic Development  of the Conference Board and co-chair its Technology & Innovation Committee.

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