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Good Public Policy Can Move the Needle on Digital Inclusion

(May 9, 2018) - Last summer, FCC Chairman Ajit Pai (pictured right) wrote that “[i]f you live in rural America, there’s a better than 1-in-4 chance that you lack access to fixed high-speed broadband at home, compared to a 1-in-50 probability in our cities.”

The Digital Divide is tangible and persistent for rural America, and to solve the challenges, good public policy is vital. It is one of the reasons we’re now marking Digital Inclusion Week (May 7-11).

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Every year, the government spends significant dollars on broadband expansion in rural areas through a number of programs. The FCC’s Connect America Fund (CAF) most recently took steps to prepare for a July launch of a reverse auction which will provide up to $1.98 billion in subsidies for broadband buildout to rural areas over 10 years. Also ongoing is the FCC’s Mobility Fund Phase II which will make up to $4.53 billion in support available over 10 years for primarily rural areas that lack unsubsidized 4G LTE.

Meanwhile, the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) operates a number of grant and loan programs providing support to help bring broadband to unserved areas, and in the 2018 omnibus legislation, the USDA was granted $600 million for a new broadband loan and grant pilot program which allows funding for areas where 90 percent of the households to be served are rural and without sufficient access to broadband at speeds of 10 Mbps/1 Mbps.

Where to Spend It Matters
Despite all of the money going toward broadband expansion, we really don’t know where broadband is and is not. Leaders on both sides of the political aisle have called for more accurate and granular broadband data collection, and without it, money will continue to be spent in areas that simply may not need it, while rural, unserved areas suffer.

This is why good public policy on broadband can truly move the needle on digital inclusion. Since you cannot solve what you cannot measure, the priority of lawmakers looking to close the Digital Divide needs to focus not only on the funding of grants and other subsidies to encourage buildout, but also on improved broadband data collection, validation, and mapping efforts.

In the 2018 omnibus, the National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA) received $7.5 million to “acquire and display third-party data sets” which will be used to update and supplement the FCC’s newly designed national broadband map. While this is a start, much more needs to be done to collect and validate that data at a more granular level than the FCC’s current practice of using provider-submitted data at the census block level.

By improving data and mapping practices, legislators and regulators can use sound public policy to understand where unserved areas are and work to close the persistent service availability gaps in rural America. Through ubiquitous broadband access, digital inclusion may become a reality; because everyone belongs in a Connected Nation.

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About the Author: Lindsay Conrad is the Director of Public Policy for Connected Nation. She follows legislative developments that impact the broadband landscape, provides policy understanding and updates, and connects with key stakeholders in the development of legislation to promote broadband expansion.