Every conversation we have in DC these days seems to end with policymakers asking what they can do to help overcome rural broadband challenges. Unfortunately, the issue is so complex that it can be hard to come up with a single set of policy prescriptions that works – and with so much interest in the topic, it seems like everyone wants to put their own stamp on the topic with unique proposals.
Representing companies and cooperatives that have more experience in the business of rural broadband than anyone else, we at NTCA have obviously thought lots and lots about this issue. In a white paper that our Senior Vice President Mike Romano prepared in recent weeks, we have tried to boil down a list of potential solutions into a coordinated four-part plan. This plan is intended to be flexible enough to address different challenges in different areas, but calibrated so that we don’t end up with different federal programs “tripping over one another” to tackle rural broadband challenges. It’s intended to address the key challenges of broadband availability and affordability in rural America, and to overcome the primary barriers of: (1) an insufficient business case to deploy and sustain rural broadband; and (2) regulatory uncertainty. Styled as “rural broadband resolutions for 2018,” we believe this plan presents the best possible path – building upon what has worked to date and then updating what needs updating – to achieve sustainable rural broadband deployment.
You can read about these resolutions in much more detail here. But to summarize this four-part plan:
- Make Universal Service Work Again – Right-sizing the high-cost Universal Service Fund (USF) budget is an essential foundation and necessary first step to provide a business case for rural broadband investment, to sustain rural broadband networks once built, and for the other measures that follow to have any meaningful positive impact on rural broadband. Nothing else works if this doesn’t work to start.
- Provide Complementary and Carefully Coordinated Financing Vehicles for Rural Broadband – Instead of creating new grant or loan programs from scratch, leverage and build upon US Department of Agriculture and other capital programs that are already in place – or at least make sure any new programs are carefully coordinated both with existing ones and the high-cost USF mechanism to avoid the risk of duplicating or undermining the respective efforts of these various initiatives.
- Rationalize and Streamline Infrastructure Permitting – Although a sensible business case is an absolute prerequisite to commencing any rural broadband network project, obtaining permits necessary for construction can represent a significant “time and cost” barrier once projects are greenlighted. A comprehensive strategy is therefore needed to address infrastructure permitting issues for wired and wireless networks alike.
- Provide Improved Access to Spectrum Dedicated for Rural Use – While mobile broadband represents a complement to fixed broadband rather than a replacement for such services, improved access to spectrum is important both to facilitate greater use of mobile broadband by rural users specifically and to enable targeted use of fixed wireless services where more robust services cannot yet be deployed. Spectrum resources should therefore be parceled out in “right-sized” licenses, and there should be incentives for those providers that hold “fallow” spectrum in rural areas to partition that resource and provide access to providers interested and willing to undertake rural wireless broadband buildout.
The track record is clear that the business case for rural broadband can be enabled – and our national broadband goals furthered – through a simple four-part plan that: (1) restores sufficiency and predictability to the current high-cost USF mechanisms; (2) leverages effective existing programs that already complement ongoing USF support by providing upfront loan or grant financing for rural broadband network construction; (3) rationalizes and streamlines infrastructure permitting; and (4) provides greater access to spectrum for use dedicated to rural communities. Resolving as a nation in 2018 to make progress on these four specific points would go a long way toward deployment of robust and sustainable rural broadband networks – for the benefit of rural consumers and communities, and the nation as a whole.