A Common Sense Fix to Speed Broadband Deployment to Unserved Communities
The benefits of having a reliable high-speed broadband connection have never been as apparent as they are now during the COVID-19 pandemic. With millions of Americans spending more time at home as we try to limit the spread of the virus, broadband is enabling us to continue our daily lives—from doing our jobs, studying at home, connecting with a doctor, streaming our favorite shows, to staying in touch with friends and family.
Over the past two decades, broadband providers have invested nearly $2 trillion in network infrastructure to bring Americans some of the fastest and most widely deployed broadband networks in the world. As a result, 95 percent of Americans have access to broadband networks. That's the good news. The bad news is that the remaining 5 percent of Americans don't yet have that access.
To help address this problem, the federal government is revamping traditional support programs and dedicating billions of dollars annually to connect unserved communities, which are often difficult to reach. The policy makes a lot of sense.
But unfortunately, too often outdated rules and entrenched interests impede constructive change and limit our ability to bring some of the best solutions for unserved communities. We should update those rules to ensure that support programs operate efficiently through a fully competitive, merit-based process.
One glaring example is known as the Eligible Telecommunications Carrier (ETC) requirement—a decades old eligibility rule which requires broadband providers to complete an unnecessary and burdensome process if they want to help with the infrastructure buildout.
The rule dates back to 1996 when providers were applying for federal funding to deliver landline telephone service. But today, 24 years later, when universal broadband is a national goal, the requirement has become a maze of inconsistent bureaucratic, mission-building red-tape. It continues to deter many of the nation's largest and most capable providers of broadband from participating.
These old rules apply to many programs. Only ETC designated broadband providers can participate in the FCC's Lifeline program, for instance, which helps eligible low-income customers receive discounted service from broadband providers. Many low-cost plans are denied to these consumers because many of the ETC rules keep them out.
The Rural Digital Opportunity Fund (RDOF), which aims to fund broadband deployment to areas without service, is another FCC program that requires providers to have ETC designations, and has plans to distribute $16 billion this October to connect unserved rural communities. While RDOF could make a significant difference in bringing service to millions of homes and small businesses, the ETC requirement unwisely limits competition for such funding, all but ensuring that federal dollars will not go as far in closing access gaps, and fewer unserved households will benefit.
Like many other policies when first conceived, the original goals of ETC were made in complete good faith and intended to screen out fly-by-night infrastructure builders who were undependable. But now, many states, with the backing of local incumbents and special interests, are effectively using this once-well-intended safeguard in anticompetitive ways.
Fortunately, reform legislation has been introduced by Rep. G.K. Butterfield (D-NC). His legislation will promote deployment and adoption through one, updated national eligibility standard.
This is a pro-competition initiative that Congress should adopt. It will establish one set of clear rules that are understandable, consistent across state-borders and impervious to manipulation by local special interests that want to squash competition. That will bring more offers to the table, drive down costs, and speed up deployment—all things that we should be able to agree with on a bipartisan basis.
As we respond and rebound from the COVID pandemic, we should ensure that universal broadband connectivity is paramount. Updating our rules to ensure that we have the most competitive and merit-based process is one way to accomplish that.