New Progressive Policy Institute Report Proposes Pragmatic Policy Solutions to Connect Rural America

July 1, 2021

The COVID-19 pandemic has only further underscored the critical role that broadband access plays in daily modern life economically, educationally, civically, and health-wise. And while the pandemic demonstrated the strength of existing broadband networks in the United States, it also made clear that broadband access remains out of reach for far too many. Nearly 14.5 million Americans still find themselves on the wrong side of the digital divide – a large percentage of whom live in rural communities, where one in five people remain unconnected.

While Washington has already allocated billions in funding to help bridge the broadband gap in rural America – which remains a top legislative priority for both this Congress and Administration – it will take more than just money to connect the “last mile.” Reaching Americans across the country requires smart, targeted policies that expand broadband access first and foremost to the most unserved areas.

A new report from the Progressive Policy Institute (PPI), A Radically Pragmatic Agenda to Connect Rural America, outlines three “pragmatic principles” that policymakers must follow to ensure that the rural broadband access gap is closed once-and-for-all:

  • Government programs supporting broadband deployment should stop funding network overbuilding and focus on unserved areas, while at the same time increasing program transparency and accountability.

PPI suggests that the first step in closing the rural broadband gap is to make sure that money is getting to where it is needed most – that is, truly unserved areas that either do not have broadband services at all or do not have broadband services with speeds of at least 25/3 Mbps. Government funds should not be used for overbuilding in areas which already have service. To do this, PPI recommends that the FCC must first improve how broadband service maps are collected and analyzed to denote “unserved areas.” At the same time, Congress must focus broadband subsidies in a small number of programs that can be closely monitored to avoid overbuilding and duplicative funding.

  • Make every dollar invested in broadband stretch farther by eliminating impediments to deployment, such as excess pole replacement costs and pole attachment rents.

Utility poles form the backbone of broadband infrastructure, particularly in rural areas, but unfortunately, current policies give pole owners significant market power over access to these poles. This allows them to take advantage of problematic rent-seeking behaviors, such as imposing lengthy timetables, implementing costly permitting fees, enacting unnecessary pre- and post-construction requirements, and raising broadband deployment costs for internet service providers who need to attach to these poles. All these factors often result in delayed or even foregone broadband infrastructure expansion to the last-mile regions that need internet service the most. In fact, the PPI study found that high pole attachment fees charged by pole owners can cut broadband deployment by as much as 55%.

To address this issue, PPI recommends that Congress bring all poles under FCC jurisdiction, eliminating the exemption for municipal and cooperative power companies. The Institute also asks the FCC to clarify that broadband providers are only responsible for their proportionate share of pole replacements.

  • Government programs supporting broadband deployment should not be bogged down by restrictions and requirements developed for last century’s telephone networks.

Federal broadband funding programs such as the Rural Digital Opportunity Fund (RDOF) often limit participants to designated “Eligible Telecommunications Carriers” (ETC). This outdated requirement, however, requires a burdensome and expensive application process which discourages many of the providers that are best suited to build in rural areas. PPI urges Congress to remove this ETC requirement and instead ensure that any universal service requirements are explicitly broadband-focused.

To read the entire PPI report, click here, and to learn more about Connect the Future’s work to eliminate barriers to broadband deployment like outdated pole attachment and replacement rules, click here.