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Broadband Policy, Deployment, and Access: Lessons for New York State – Benton Foundation


Wednesday, August 5, 2020

Digital Beat

Presentation to the Reimagine New York Commission

Introduction

Dr. Christopher Ali
          Ali

Thank you very much for the invitation to speak with you this afternoon. It is an honor to present my work to such an illustrious committee.

I am an Associate Professor in the Department of Media Studies at the University of Virginia and Faculty Fellow with the Benton Institute for Broadband & Society. I hold a PhD in Communication Studies from the Annenberg School for Communication at the University of Pennsylvania.

For the last four years I have been researching and writing about rural broadband policy. This is all in anticipation of my forthcoming book Farm Fresh Spectrum: Rural Broadband and the Future of Connectivity which will be released in 2021 with MIT Press. The book is an analysis of rural broadband policy in the United States. My goal is to explain how is it that this country can spend upwards of $10 billion a year on broadband deployment and yet the digital divide is growing, not shrinking. And I’ll get to why I think it is growing later in my presentation.

The book is an analysis of rural broadband policy in the United States. My goal is to explain out how is it that this country can spend upwards of $10 billion a year on broadband deployment and yet the digital divide is growing, not shrinking. And I’ll get to why I think it is growing later in my presentation.

As much as policy analysis is fascinating and fruitful, the highlight of this research was a 3,600-mile road trip I took in the summer of 2018 with my hound dog Tuna. We, and I say “we” because Tuna was an absolutely stellar research assistant, wanted to put a human and local face on rural broadband policy, and so we talked to local and state officials, rural broadband providers, broadband users, non-users, farmers, ag tech developers, local digital champions, librarians, random people in grocery stores, anyone and everyone who was willing to share their broadband experience with us. Between this trip, dozens of in-depth interviews and an analysis of tens of thousands of pages of broadband policy, I was able to complete my book.

What I have been asked to talk about

I have been asked to share some of the findings of my research today, focusing on federal policy, state policy, state broadband initiatives, and specifically how New York State can encourage greater local and municipal participation in broadband deployment. I want to start with some thoughts on the digital divide, before turning to the other topics.

From Digital Divide to Digital Inclusion

I thought it prudent to remind the Commission about the intricacies of the term “digital divide.” Often times in the press we hear that the digital divide is defined as the “haves” and “have nots” of broadband infrastructure. Moreover, this is typically painted as an exclusively rural-urban issue. The truth, however, is that there are multiple digital divides experienced in this country and these divides intersect. The rural-urban digital divide is primarily one of infrastructure. At least 22.3% of rural Americans, or 15.8 million people, lack access to broadband infrastructure and are therefore cut off from the internet. More robust estimates suggest that this number is probably double. About 18% of rural students do not have access to the internet and 24% of rural residents say broadband access is a major issue in their community. While 15 million rural Americans lack access, even more are considered underserved, meaning that they may have access to the internet, but it is not at the speeds or latency that we would consider broadband, or better yet, what Former General Counsel for the FCC, Jonathan Sallet, calls “high performance broadband.” What is more, rural Americans pay more for their broadband – upwards of 37% more than urban Americans, and usually for slower speeds.

In urban America, the digital divide is less about infrastructure and more about affordability. Indeed, all things being equal, it is income and cost that are the major predictors of broadband adoption. 44% of low-income Americans (earning less than $30,000 a year) do not have a home broadband subscription. In New York City alone it is estimated that 18% of the population lack access to broadband because of cost or other factors. Americans want broadband and understand the necessity of broadband, and we need to make it more affordable for everyone.

In addition to geography and class, digital divides are also defined by race.  According to the Pew Research Center, 34% of Black adults do not have a home broadband connection and 39% of Latinx adults do not have a home broadband connection. According to the US Census Bureau, 47% of those on Tribal lands do not have a home broadband connection.

The digital divide is also not just about the infrastructure and income haves and have not,, but about skills, usage, and motivation – this is encompassed in the term “digital inclusion.” According to the National Digital Inclusion Alliance, digital inclusion refers not only to infrastructure and affordability, but devices, access to digital literacy training, quality technical support, and applications and online content designed to enable and encourage self-sufficiency, participation and collaboration. The NDIA has recently argued that by having a policy apparatus that focuses almost exclusively on rural broadband deployment and not on these other digital divides, our federal policies are reproducing extant racist and structural inequalities. Others, like the Reverend Al Sharpton and FCC Commissioner Geoffrey Starks have called access to broadband a “civil right,” while the United Nations has gone further and called it a “human right.”

For reasons we have all quickly become aware, the COVID-19 pandemic has made the many facets of these digital divides painfully apparent for millions of Americans. Indeed, PBS reported that people may be less likely to social distance and stay, work, and study from home without a reliable broadband connection.

Without concrete steps, the digital divide is set to grow, with fiber deployment and 5G in the luckiest areas, and, in what Roberto Gallardo and Cheyanne Geideman call “digital distress” for the unluckiest communities.

Key arguments from my research

As I said earlier, my research has focused primarily on the policies governing broadband deployment and infrastructure in rural America. There is little broadband in rural America because of what economists call market failure – the private market will not or cannot provide for a socially-recognized important good because of a lack of return on investment. Said differently, there are not enough people in rural America and those people are too spread out to justify deploying broadband according to market principles. But broadband is as essential for all the uses and needs in rural America as it is everywhere else. These are what I call the 6 pillars of rural broadband:

  • Economic development
  • Telehealth
  • Education
  • Civic engagement
  • Public safety
  • Quality of life

In my work, I argue that broadband is a market failure in rural America. I also argue that it is a policy failure, and the bulk of this argument stems from a draft of a chapter that you all read. I argue that rural broadband is a policy failure because of:

  • A lack of a coherent national plan for rural broadband deployment;
  • A lack of coordination between the Federal Communications Commission and the U.S. Department of Agriculture;
  • A system that has overwhelming favored the largest telecommunication companies, especially the legacy telephone companies; and
  • A system that relies on bad data and terrible deployment maps.   

Federal Policies

There is a strong parallel between the wiring of rural American today for broadband and the electrification of rural America in the 1930s and 1940s and the networking of rural America for telephony in the 1950s. At these critical junctures, we had a coordinated and deliberate federal plan to connect the unconnected. This began in 1936 with the passage of the Rural Electrification Act and the creation of the Rural Electrification Administration. With a mighty budget the REA set out to create and subsidize electric cooperatives throughout rural counties, and, perhaps more importantly, set about a national tour to educate Americans about electricity. This was incredibly successful and within a decade the percentage of connected farms went from 48% to 93%.[1] This program was so successful that in 1949, telephony was added to the mandate of the REA and within a decade rural connectivity went from 25% to 65%.[2]  There is precedent here for a strong and coordinated federal policy push, something we’ve lacked since the quickly forgotten 2009 Rural Broadband Strategy and the 2010 National Broadband Plan, which failed to meet many of its goals.

A federal plan is particularly important given that the FCC is set to commence bidding on the $20.4 billion Rural Digital Opportunity Fund. This is a ten-year program designed to replace the Connect America Fund – the FCC’s first rural broadband funding program. The Rural Digital Opportunity Fund, or “RDOF,” will be a reverse auction focusing on the most unserved areas. This is a good thing and the fact that the FCC has extended eligibility beyond the usual players of telecommunication and telephone companies is praiseworthy. We should be concerned, however, that RDOF may replicate many of the existing failures of rural broadband policy. This includes setting a low benchmark for broadband at 25 mbps download/3 mbps upload and a data cap of 250 gigabytes for the lowest tiered service. This does not correspond to our current needs and usage, where the national download average is 143 mbps and daily data usage is now around 16 gigabytes (up from 12 in pre-COVID times). RDOF is also still relying on those outdated maps that we have all come to hate. Now the FCC was recently ordered by the Broadband Deployment Accuracy and Technology Availability Act to rectify its methodology, but it has so far refused to act on it.

Perhaps the most egregious issue with RDOF is that any area that has previously received funds from any federal or state program for broadband funding will be ineligible. This effectively takes the legs out from under many of the most ambitious state broadband programs, such as New York and Minnesota. States are going to have to get creative with their own broadband plans to work around these FCC restrictions, because you don’t want communities holding back on their applications because of worries that success in one program will mean ineligibility for another program, especially when that program is valued at $20 billion.

New York also has an additional challenge with RDOF eligibility because any area that Charter is required to serve as a result of its acquisition of Time Warner Cable will also be ineligible for funding.

State Policies

In the absence of a coherent federal plan for rural broadband, many states, have taken it upon themselves to connect the unconnected in rural areas. New York’s broadband plan is the most ambitious at $500 million of committed public funds. Illinois is second with a commitment of $420 million. Minnesota is also a national leader in state broadband policies, not necessarily because of the level of public funding, but because of the its scope and scale. Minnesota’s Broadband Office operates not only as a grantor of funds, but as a clearinghouse of information and as a trusted advisor to communities working on cataloguing their broadband needs.

Pew Research released a report in February 2020 highlighting best practices for state broadband plans, and among their recommendations was a broadband office that does what Minnesota does – communicates, coordinates, plans, and funds. Other important best practices for states include setting forward-looking goals and rallying stakeholders around these goals; supporting broadband planning on a regional and municipal level; engaging local digital champions; providing tools for community planning; promoting broadband adoption and digital literacy; championing small providers; collecting data from grantees; and one of my favorites, creating certificate programs for communities that reach certain connectivity thresholds, such as for telework.

Recommendations

In crafting a broadband plan for New York State post-COVID, we can learn a lot from Pew and from the experiences of other successful states. While New York leads in financial commitments, it could do more around planning for digital inclusion and literacy, and encouraging local communities. I have five recommendations to conclude my presentation:

  1. A local-first approach
    • A local-first approach means a policy apparatus that encourages local digital champions through training and communication. It means acting as a resource for local communities, not just for funding, but for planning, advice, and communication. It can also mean creating certification programs, like the Telecommuter Forward! program in Wisconsin that recognizes communities with broadband infrastructure capable of supporting telecommuting.
  2. An “all-hands-on-deck” approach
    • This means encouraging small ISPs and municipal projects. There is some controversy here, as New York City has recently received pushback for its $2 billion Internet Master Plan which includes a substantial municipal investment. Many detractors point to a so-called failed municipal project in Bristol, Virginia, but there are also hundreds of successful municipal broadband projects across the country. Solving the digital divide means embracing all options and stakeholders, including public options and public private partnerships.
  3. “Access” means more than just infrastructure. Access means digital inclusion.
    • This means thinking about plans for affordability, and digital literacy and skills development.
  4. Policies must be data driven
    • New York State should consider state-wide data collection processes to augment FCC data. Crowdsourcing data is a phenomenal tool in our toolbox. Here, I look to the work of Measurement Lab and Professor Sascha Meinrath at Penn State University. Working together with millions of crowdsourced data points, Professor Meinrath demonstrated how the FCC’s broadband map was wrong by upwards of 50% throughout all of Pennsylvania.
    • In addition to the quantitative data, qualitative data should also be gathered. One of my most powerful learning experiences about broadband was participating in a community listening session with Representative Abigail Spanberger in Louisa County, Virginia. I heard stories of community members frustrated over their lack of connectivity, stories of an inability to work because of slow internet speeds, and an inability to sell one’s home because of the undesirability of a home without high-speed internet. These are powerful stories, and I would highly recommend this Commission hear the stories of those unconnected.
  5. Adopting aggressive, future-oriented goals
    • We should be planning for tomorrow, not trying to meet the connection speeds of 2015. This means being technologically neutral, but not technologically blind. Both New York and Minnesota, for instance, designate a community as “underserved” when connectivity is below 100mbps download/20 mbps upload speeds. Jon Sallet, whom I’ve already cited, recommends 100/100 as a baseline in his Benton Institute for Broadband & Society report Broadband for America’s Future: A Vision for the 2020s. Policies need to be ambitious and aggressive and need to compel providers to anticipate the broadband needs of communities in the years to come.

What connects these recommendations is the belief that, at its core, broadband is not about technology, nor is it about companies, nor is it really about policy. Broadband is about people. It’s about homework, spreadsheets, credit card transactions, Zoom calls, World of Warcraft, bingeing Tiger King and all of the things we need broadband for every day. It’s about quality of life.

Keeping this in mind is the best way to ensure that everyone is connected equally in a post-COVID New York.


Christopher Ali is an Associate Professor at the University of Virginia and Faculty Fellow at the Benton Institute for Broadband & Society. He is the author of the forthcoming book: Farm Fresh Spectrum: Rural Broadband Policy and the Future of Connectivity (MIT Press).


[1] Ronald R. Kline (2000). Consumers in the Country: Technology and Social Change in Rural America. Baltimore: John Hopkins University Press.

[2] Ronald R. Kline (2000). Consumers in the Country: Technology and Social Change in Rural America. Baltimore: John Hopkins University Press.

 



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