The Tech Policy Greenhouse is an online symposium where experts tackle the most difficult policy challenges facing innovation and technology today. These are problems that don't have easy solutions, where every decision involves tradeoffs and unintended consequences, so we've gathered a wide variety of voices to help dissect existing policy proposals and better inform new ones.

Can Broadband Policy Help Create A More Equitable And inclusive Economy And Society Instead Of The Reverse?

from the newfound-urgency dept

25 years ago, then NTIA Administrator Larry Irving warned that the rising importance of the internet had the downside of creating what he coined a “digital divide.”

15 years later, the National Broadband Plan reported that as “more aspects of daily life move online and offline alternatives disappear, the range of choices available to people without broadband narrows. Digital exclusion compounds inequities for historically marginalized groups.” In light of these trends, the plan warned “the cost of digital exclusion is large and growing.”

Judging by the limited government response to those described dangers, both warnings arguably were ahead of their times. In those eras, many viewed internet access as a luxury and saw many other needs as higher priorities for government funds.

That changed this past spring. COVID accelerated the momentum of the economy and society towards “remote everything,” revealing that the divide was more costly and urgent than the country had realized. This then launched countless editorials from a wide spectrum of political views, that called for government action to get networks everywhere, get everyone on them, and use them to improve the delivery of essential public goods like education, health care and job training.

That is progress but it is still far from an achievement.

To get networks everywhere, we first need accurate data, something that on a bipartisan basis Congress recognized the FCC has not collected. We also need the FCC to revisit two issues: what now constitutes being unserved, and the minimum standards for any government subsidized deployment. While many have offered their instinctual views on the answers to both, COVID created a real world experiment for high-bandwidth use cases that we should use to illuminate how we answer those questions for a remote everything economy and society.

Once we have a better map and understanding broadband need, Congress should provide funding, at a minimum, to pay for the capital expense of building out networks where no further operating expenses are necessary. Those funds should be allocated in ways that use market forces to assure the public funds are efficiently distributed.

That is not always true today. For example, recently the Department of Agriculture’s Rural Utility Service (RUS) awarded Beehive Telephone Company Inc. a $2.3 million ReConnect grant to deploy a fiber-to-the-premises network to four residents, four farms, and four businesses in Washington County, Utah. It also doled out a $2.7 million grant to deploy a fiber-to-the-premises network to connect 147 people in Elko County, Nevada. These average out to be more than $33,000 per home passed.

That compares rather unfavorably to the FCC’s recent Rural Development Opportunity Fund (RDOF) reverse auction which averaged about $1,770 per home passed. There are concerns about that auction, particularly as other such auctions have experienced a number of defaults owing to technological, economic or competitive factors. Further, the mapping failure likely led to millions spent on unnecessary subsidies. Still, the auction demonstrates that if we had good maps and devoted the appropriate resources, we can finish the job of getting networks everywhere.

Helping everyone connect is tougher and statistically more important. After all, three times as many Americans have access to networks but have not adopted service as those who simply have no available networks. Yet we devote far more to the availability gap than we do the adoption gap. in 2019 the ratio was greater than five to one—even though the cost to America of an individual not adopting is similar to the cost of an individual not having access.

To get everyone on, we have to address two critical issues: digital readiness and affordability. For digital readiness, we need a more focused effort at the local, state and federal level, for developing, testing and improving such efforts for targeted communities of non-adopters.

Affordability, however, is the most significant factor. Affordability can mean two things. First, it can mean the price of an average service. Second, it can mean the entry level price for a baseline service. Policy needs to explore both; if we are looking at the challenge of affordability for the currently unconnected, we have to prioritize addressing the second.

The current program for addressing that affordability is called Lifeline. It is inadequate in many respects, most obviously in the subsidy it offers, of $9.25 a month. It also is distributed poorly, with only 7 million of the 38 million eligible homes taking the benefit. But if the FCC increased both the subsidy and the number of recipients, it would blow up the current funding mechanism, which is based on an assessment on certain phone services that is already at 30%.

Further, even if the monthly subsidy could be increased, it would not necessarily lead to broadband where we need it. We should approach Lifeline reform by recognizing that certain public goods are enhanced with greater broadband in homes. We all benefit when all school children have to tools to do their homework and engage in other online learning in their homes. We also benefit when all can take advantage of telehealth in the home, both improving community health and lowering costs for the overall system. We all benefit when the unemployed are not cut off from on-line training or the tools to search, apply and interview for new jobs, diminishing the time they are unemployed.

The current Lifeline program does little to capture these benefits as in practice it is an important but limited mobile service. Simply increasing the subsidy and distribution mechanisms would not capture the benefits of home use.

We need to continue to improve efforts to connect all to voice services, but we also need to capture the public benefits of in home broadband. As to the benefits for school children, Congress to step up, as it did with the school lunch program and other federal support for schools serving low income students, ensuring that they have a baseline access to educational opportunities outside the classroom, which are overwhelming online. We also need to examine how the health and unemployment insurance programs can assist in getting such persons connected. Such programs can provide both efficient distribution mechanisms and use savings to the program to help offset the costs of a broadband benefit.

Some might argue that the FCC should use its authority to assess charges on other parts of the communications networks so as to fund in-home broadband needs itself. While that might make some theoretical sense, there are multiple problems.

First, as the recent legal battles on classifying carriers under Title I or II of the Communications Act have shown, any FCC assessment that is used to subsidize broadband has significant legal vulnerabilities until the classification controversy is resolved. Second, even if the courts were to uphold a Title II classification—the most favorable outcome for expanding FCC authority for increased assessments—the revenue base may still be too limited and charges on it tend to be regressive. Third, the issue is fraught with political difficulties, which is why, a decade after the National Broadband Plan called for reform, every FCC Chair has chosen to let his successor face the consequences of the unsustainable trends.

In short, counting on FCC action to reform the current system would likely delay closing the availability and adoption gaps for many years.

Finally, there is a utilization gap; the gap between how our communications networks are used today and how they could be used to improve outcomes in delivering essential services.

Yes, we need all students online to be able to continue learning outside the classroom, but we also need for tools that provide teachers the support they need to enable students to maximize the effectiveness of digital content. Yes, we need low income persons to be able to access telehealth, but we also need to improve how we use digital technologies to target and treat diseases that disproportionately afflict low-income communities. Yes, we need the unemployed to stay connected while searching for a job but we also need to us AI and other technologies to improve how we empower people to upgrade their skills for the jobs of the future. And we need to upgrade government services so that all can access critical information and assistance on a 24/7/365 basis.

There is no silver bullet for closing any of the three gaps. All three require multiple actions by multiple government institutions across different jurisdictions. By my rough and preliminary estimate, there are over 100 federal government actions that would useful in addressing one of the key questions for government in the next decade: how can we use the tools of the information society to create a more equitable and inclusive economy and society?

But it is also one area where there is a distinct possibility of a bipartisan effort to make progress. When I discuss these issues with Republican friends, I always ask if they think the country would be better off if there were broadband networks everywhere, if everyone who wanted to be was on, and if we used the networks to improve how we deliver health care, education and job training. The answer is always yes, something that was not true prior to COVID. I then ask if they think market forces alone will achieve those goals. The answer is always no. While we may disagree on specific policies—and while compromises will likely result in policies all sides view as sub-optimal—those answers set the stage for productive conversations and policies considerably better than we have today.

In contrast with the attitudes of decades past, COVID has created a broad and deep understanding that costs of digital exclusion are too great for our economy and society to tolerate. Congress and the incoming Administration, aided by an FCC that hopefully will take its role as an expert agency seriously, to finally assure that there are networks everywhere, everyone can get on, and that we use them to improve how we deliver essential services.

Blair Levin is a Senior Non-Resident Fellow at the Brookings Institution and a Policy Analyst for New Street Research, a global telecommunications and tech equity research firm. Previously he was Chief of Staff to the Chairman of the FCC, from 1993-1997, Executive Director of the effort that produced the 2010 United States National Broadband Plan, and he has consulted with a numerous cities, states and countries on broadband policy.

Filed Under: , , , , ,

Rate this comment as insightful
Rate this comment as funny
You have rated this comment as insightful
You have rated this comment as funny
Flag this comment as abusive/trolling/spam
You have flagged this comment
The first word has already been claimed
The last word has already been claimed
Insightful Lightbulb icon Funny Laughing icon Abusive/trolling/spam Flag icon Insightful badge Lightbulb icon Funny badge Laughing icon Comments icon

Comments on “Can Broadband Policy Help Create A More Equitable And inclusive Economy And Society Instead Of The Reverse?”

Subscribe: RSS Leave a comment
ECA (profile) says:


Consider for a moment, that everyone could and has access to express, themselves.
That we could/would/Should setup areas for those that wish to discuss/compare religion, Life, Taxes, Gov., and soforth.

The amounts of Knowledge and sharing that COULD/Probably not be had would be Amazing.
Could we get all the christian groups to combine and become 1 religion? NOT on your life.
Could we get Other religious groups to see the Options available to them, and convert them to What is a better option(not always the Christian ideal).
How many nations would CUT the internet connections to the rest of the world, as there is to much knowledge and Acknowledgment of OTHERS IDEALS. The confusion to be had.
What would be lost and would be gained?
Could we solve the problems of manufacturing and finding BETTER ways to create things, besides cutting down every tree in the world just to have farming lands. Or Cut pollution down to a point that we might survive another 100-1000 years before we end up killing ourselves.

What could we do to Lessen the impact of Old ideals and concepts to create something better?

This could be as long as the post, But I wont go that far.
Good luck figuring it out, and deciding what we CANT do.

This comment has been deemed insightful by the community.
Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Congress should provide funding

Life is neither fair nor unfair, mother nature does not care about you or what you think is fair. If one gauges their success upon what others have one will be continuously disappointed.

I think the issue here is whether we as a species are capable of sustaining our selves during and through a major pandemic. It is not looking good. Clearly, a bug worse than covid-19 has the potential to wipe us out simply because humans are not able to control themselves. Seems we either grow up or get out, that is what nature is saying.

This comment has been deemed insightful by the community.
PaulT (profile) says:

"Some people have more and better stuff than others."

This is not the issue. The issue is that in order to get stuff, you need the right, ability and means to access it. If those things are unequally distributed, then some people will never have a way to access things that others have. Everything from employment to education to the ability to communicate is naturally more difficult for those without the same means that others have.

In the past, the government has stepped in to correct major inequalities like this. Everything from running water to roads to electricity has required the government to provide what the private sector could not or would not provide to certain types of people or certain areas of the country. The same applies here.

ECA (profile) says:

Re: Re:

Things have gotten behind. Towns and cities that cant even Update their Own facilities.
There is/was a pattern in Detroit, that causes most of its current problems.
The city saw Lots of people with good jobs, Stores and companies Loved this place as people had money.
So the state thinks, "wow they got money lets raise taxes, so Some of us state workers can get better pay". and over time they over taxed themselves, as well as the people, companies and corps.
The same is happening in other locations. Just cause there is Better/more work, and people have abit more money, dont really mean you should raise taxes WITHOUT REASONS.

I find it strange that we have the stock exchange, and commodities. That are supposed to control prices FOR farmers. but the Money farmers get, HARDLY ever changes. But the Price of Food does. Avg. Price of goods direct for a farmer, is $0.03 per pound, and it dont matter what you are buying. And you cant tell me that the Processing, handling, Shipping Cost amount to over 50 times that price.
USED to be you could go to the processor, and buy direct. But thats competition the big companies dont like. So they wrote restricted contracts. So insted of getting a 5lb bag of hashbrowns, for about $2, now you will pay 2-5 times that price.

The Equalization STOPPED. the basic fundamentals of economics Stopped. The idea is the More money you can Squeeze out of the Turnip, the Less red it will be.

This comment has been flagged by the community. Click here to show it.

ECA (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re:2 Re:

Wash DC was in a more central area in the USA.
It would be Very interesting to watch 1 million people congregate at the front door, to demand that WE are the control of this nation.
Its either that, or we have to get a couple 1000 buses to get everyone over to the east coast. And probably loose their Jobs.
Rather travel 1000 miles then almost 3000.
Let really upset them. Take SOME of our control BACK. And make it CHEAPER to be a Politician, out in the middle of a Wheat field.

MarianeWisoky says:

How broadband can deliver health and equity to all communities

Two decades into the new millennium, the digitalization of American life is no longer striking—it is ordinary. Every industry relies on computing, cloud storage, or other digital equipment to sell goods and services. Employers increasingly demand more advanced digital skills from the labor force. Meanwhile, people’s individual lives often orbit around the internet, whether at home, at work, or on the move. Even decades-old infrastructure—from roads and rails to water pipes and the energy grid—now relies on digital equipment for construction, operation, and modernization.

Add Your Comment

Your email address will not be published.

Have a Techdirt Account? Sign in now. Want one? Register here

Comment Options:

Make this the or (get credits or sign in to see balance) what's this?

What's this?

Techdirt community members with Techdirt Credits can spotlight a comment as either the "First Word" or "Last Word" on a particular comment thread. Credits can be purchased at the Techdirt Insider Shop »

Follow Techdirt

Techdirt Daily Newsletter

Techdirt Deals
Techdirt Insider Discord
The latest chatter on the Techdirt Insider Discord channel...
Older Stuff
12:04 SOPA Didn't Die. It's Just Lying In Wait. (5)
09:30 Demanding Progress: From Aaron Swartz To SOPA And Beyond (3)
12:00 How The SOPA Blackout Happened (3)
09:30 Remembering The Fight Against SOPA 10 Years Later... And What It Means For Today (16)
12:00 Winding Down Our Latest Greenhouse Panel: Content Moderation At The Infrastructure Layer (4)
12:00 Does An Internet Infrastructure Taxonomy Help Or Hurt? (15)
14:33 OnlyFans Isn't The First Site To Face Moderation Pressure From Financial Intermediaries, And It Won't Be The Last (12)
10:54 A New Hope For Moderation And Its Discontents? (7)
12:00 Infrastructure And Content Moderation: Challenges And Opportunities (7)
12:20 Against 'Content Moderation' And The Concentration Of Power (32)
13:36 Social Media Regulation In African Countries Will Require More Than International Human Rights Law (7)
12:00 The Vital Role Intermediary Protections Play for Infrastructure Providers (7)
12:00 Should Information Flows Be Controlled By The Internet Plumbers? (10)
12:11 Bankers As Content Moderators (6)
12:09 The Inexorable Push For Infrastructure Moderation (6)
13:35 Content Moderation Beyond Platforms: A Rubric (5)
12:00 Welcome To The New Techdirt Greenhouse Panel: Content Moderation At The Infrastructure Level (8)
12:00 That's A Wrap: Techdirt Greenhouse, Broadband In The Covid Era (17)
12:05 Could The Digital Divide Unite Us? (29)
12:00 How Smart Software And AI Helped Networks Thrive For Consumers During The Pandemic (41)
12:00 With Terrible Federal Broadband Data, States Are Taking Matters Into Their Own Hands (18)
12:00 A National Solution To The Digital Divide Starts With States (19)
12:00 The Cost Of Broadband Is Too Damned High (12)
12:00 Can Broadband Policy Help Create A More Equitable And inclusive Economy And Society Instead Of The Reverse? (11)
12:03 The FCC, 2.5 GHz Spectrum, And The Tribal Priority Window: Something Positive Amid The COVID-19 Pandemic (6)
12:00 Colorado's Broadband Internet Doesn't Have to Be Rocky (9)
12:00 The Trump FCC Has Failed To Protect Low-Income Americans During A Health Crisis (26)
12:10 Perpetually Missing from Tech Policy: ISPs And The IoT (10)
12:10 10 Years Of U.S. Broadband Policy Has Been A Colossal Failure (7)
12:18 Digital Redlining: ISPs Widening The Digital Divide (17)
More arrow