Institute for Policy Innovation Hosts Expert Panel to Discuss the Role of Government in Expanding Broadband Access

July 30, 2021

This past year has made clear just how critical access to reliable, high-speed broadband is for all Americans. However, over 4 percent of all Americans, including 35 percent of rural Americans, remain on the wrong side of the digital divide. To bridge this digital divide and rural broadband gap, both federal and state governments have committed significant amounts of funding and resources – including $65 billion in the current, proposed bipartisan infrastructure package  – to expand broadband infrastructure to unserved ‘last-mile’ regions. But how much of a role – and what exact role – should the government actually play in the effort to expand broadband access to all corners of the country?

The Institute for Policy Innovation (IPI) tackled this question with former FCC Commissioner Michael O’Rielly, Technology & Innovation Policy Fellow at R Street Jeff Westling, Vice President of Policy at Charter Communications Marc Paul, and the Director of Center for Technology and Innovation at James Madison Institute Andrea Castillo O’Sullivan. IPI Research Fellow Bartlett Cleland moderated the panel, which focused on ways to ensure that government policies and resources are used most effectively to expedite broadband expansion across the country.

Here are the two main takeaways from the panel’s discussion:

Takeaway #1: The government’s role in expanding broadband must be targeted and build upon previous investments to ensure the most efficient use of existing resources.  

Former FCC Commissioner Michael O’Rielly stated that government’s role should be centered around creating incentives for private companies to expand broadband infrastructure to currently unserved consumers. Marc Paul stressed that the private sector has made significant investments and progress over the last few years to close the broadband access and adoption gaps in this country, but he also acknowledged that there remains a targeted role for government to play in helping to close those gaps even further. He pointed to specific investments worth $40 billion by Charter over the last five years to buildout their infrastructure networks and emphasized that the government needed to play a very focused role in broadband buildout by acknowledging and building off of the previous investments made by the industry and then carefully identifying where public-private partnerships make sense.

Takeaway #2: To ensure that broadband access is deployed most efficiently to the unserved parts of America that need it most, our federal government must reform pole attachment regulations.

A recurring theme throughout the entire event – as mentioned by Andrea Castillo O’Sullivan, Bartlett Cleland, Jeff Westling, and Marc Paul – was the critical need to reform pole attachment and replacement policies. Marc Paul highlighted the important role that poles play in broadband deployment and how the government also has a role to play in streamlining the processes to attach to pole, ensuring that they are cost-efficient and expeditious. He noted that current processes for broadband providers to attach to these poles are costly and oftentimes result in significant delays — ultimately impacting the consumers who need broadband the most (“they get the short end of the pole”). The panelists stressed the urgent need to institute a fair, equitable and transparent cost-sharing process between pole attachers and pole owners so those consumers who need it can get connected.

Too many Americans still lack the opportunities and resources that come from having reliable access to broadband. With new funds and opportunities to reform policies, the panelists agreed that we have a once-in-a-generation opportunity today to help bridge America’s digital divide and rural broadband gap.