Last summer at Fiber Connect 2019, we heard a lot about the “digital divide” that exists in the United States. At a 30,000 foot level, the digital divide is the notion that, while much of the U.S. is connected to high-speed broadband, there are large swaths of Americans who still do not have access to these technologies, and this problem is particularly acute in rural areas. Without this connectivity, rural Americans are often cut off from educational and economic opportunities and are forced to drive miles to libraries or a local McDonald’s to get online at all.
At Fiber Connect, the USDA Acting Administrator Chad Rupe tackled the issue head-on in his keynote. 23 million rural Americans lack access to advanced broadband services, he said, and this greatly impacts their quality of life. Broadband infrastructure isn’t really that much different than “traditional” infrastructure like roads and bridges, said Rupe. And because of this, Rupe believes that the government has a role to play in bridging the digital divide that exists in America.
Rupe detailed how the USDA is acting to bridge this digital divide, both now and in the next decade. The agency’s American Broadband Initiative, conducted in concert with the White House, NTIA, and the National Economic Council, seeks to streamline the permitting process for deployment and maximize the use of federal assets and taxpayer dollars.
Federal funding for rural broadband also exists elsewhere in government. Rupe discussed the Federal Communications Commission’s (FCC) Connect America Fund (CAF), a plan to reform and modernize broadband services across the country with a budget of over $2 billion across ten years. Bidders are able to submit long-form applications to the FCC to receive support through Phase II of the CAF.
Rupe also sees private-public partnerships as an important way to deploy broadband across the United States. When public agencies and private companies combine to provide greater efficiency and better access to capital, we see government dollars go further and greater deployment of broadband technology.
At the Fiber Broadband Association, we are passionate about all of the options available to fund fiber development and deployment across the nation, and particularly because we believe that it is an achievable goal to bring high-speed connectivity to nearly every American. We conducted a study and found that we are on pace to deploy all-fiber networks to about 50% of U.S. households by 2025. We also found that, if we invest an additional $70 billion, we can reach 90% of American households by 2029.
To put this $70 billion into context, the FCC currently spends about $8 billion each year to support broadband networks in rural areas, schools, libraries, and hospitals and next year’s FCC auctions promise an additional $20 billion for rural broadband. The federal Rural Utility Services and state programs also currently fund broadband, and current infrastructure proposals in Congress propose up to an $80 billion investment in broadband access. Our goal is achievable.
If the funding that Rupe has outlined is used in innovative ways, we can bridge the digital divide and ultimately bring connectivity to every corner of the United States.