Since returning to academia from politics, I have focused my remarks on two areas of internet policy: broadband deployment and cybersecurity. It soon may be time to broaden the scope, but for now, and until we get to a more secure place on these two subjects, I retain the focus. Let’s take stock of where we are on those two subjects under a new administration and some developments. Today I will address broadband issues. Next installment: cyber.
Because I have lived my entire adult life in the Finger Lakes and Southern Tier region of New York State, I did not need the pandemic and close of schools to recognize the significance of broadband deployment. When I ran for Congress in 2018 and 2020 it was my number one issue, not only because it has been part and parcel of my professional life for the last 20 years but because my platform of economic development for the region, improvement of K-12 education, and even environmental improvement hinged on that foundational infrastructure. I fully recognize that in urban areas such as where I grew up – the city of Rochester in Western New York – and in this district such as Jamestown, Elmira and Olean, financial accessibility complemented the otherwise rural challenge of getting the backbone laid and connection to schools, farms, and homes. The size of New Jersey, this district needed both economic and infrastructure support. Once the pandemic broke out and schools closed, this gap became obvious to everyone. It is no wonder, then, that now I hear even Republicans talking about it!
The 2018 Farm Act, the most comprehensive of agricultural legislation whose legacy goes back to the New Deal, includes money for rural broadband deployment. In the 1950’s the USDA took responsibility for rural electrification and rural electrification is the model for broadband deployment policy. Consequently, in January of 2019 I went to my county’s legislature, Yates, to advocate for taking advantage of it. Yates County has since been the recipient of $12m to lay a backbone onto which commercial telecommunication companies can piggy-back for subscription service.
N.B. how important it was for the Farm Act to provide funds to regional government. The fly in the ointment to state initiatives – giving grants only to commercial providers -- may have helped urban areas where the population supports the effort but failed rural ones. Local government, when proactive, can fill the gap with the assistance of organizations such as the Southern Tier Network (SNI), a not-for-profit that facilitates broadband development.
COVID Acts have increased opportunity for more funds to go into infrastructure relief. And the one-year option for low-economy individuals and families to receive support to afford a subscription helps both rural (where abundant poverty exists) and urban dwellers. Therefore, three main challenges remain.
First, the FCC should initiate the drawing of a realistic, national broadband map. That map should not use the same method that has held us back to date: maps drawn largely by telecommunication companies that divide landscapes into squares and declare an entire area covered if even only a single connection is made in that geographic space. (Part of what has kept NYS lawmakers from understanding rural plight. Maps drawn by telecommunication companies keep dollars flowing to commercial providers at the expense of rural populations. It is time for that pattern to stop, and we need elected state officials to stand up against the lobbying pressure of it.). Let’s get an accurate picture of who has physical connectivity and who does not.
Second, the FCC could and should do a thorough evaluation of what monies are available from which pieces of legislation, how much has been spent, how much is left, and how much more is needed to accomplish this feat. Even among specialists I have heard that there is confusion on this front. The FCC can and must begin with a schedule and make sure that schedule is widely shared with the public so people, governments, and entities such as SNI can use it as an on-going, constantly refreshed resource. The infrastructure bill, should it be passed, will absolutely require that we know where we are at this point with multiple pieces of legislation and pots of money to keep track of and be efficient with federal funding.
Third, and finally, the FCC should champion what remains to be accomplished on both the low-income and geographic broadband role out, set a date for completion (2025?) and stay on it – no matter who is in the White House. The Congressional district where I live is a microcosm of so many areas around the country that require this kind of development. So much potential exists where I live (and it has water!), but it is held back for the lack of connectivity.
Let’s be as smart as President Roosevelt when he called for rural electrification. Knowing that U.S. involvement with the war was only a matter of time, he knew he had to bring less productive areas of the country, then the southeast especially, up to par to support the agriculture that would support industry that would support a war economy. If the name of the game in the 21st century is global competition, and with the People’s Republic of China especially, broadband deployment and the unleashing of so much economic power is a necessary step the U.S. must take. I have just laid out three necessary moves that our federal government, including Congress, guided by the FCC, should make to accomplish this goal and get our footing straight to take advantage of so much the U.S. has to offer its people and the world.