With a pending weather report calling for snow (and let’s be honest, the mere threat of snow tends to turn DC into a tizzy), I made sure that this morning was an early-rising adventure with the opportunity to testify before the House Energy and Commerce Subcommittee on Communications and Technology on the agenda mid-morning.
While the advanced planning on the travel front ended up being unnecessary, the opportunity to share some thoughts on rural broadband deployment – the challenges with building a business case of building and sustaining these networks in rural and remote areas, along with the ways we might improve that process through streamlining, permitting, mapping and innovation – was more than worth the extra effort.
Chairman Blackburn from Tennessee hosted this critical discussion on Closing the Digital Divide: Broadband Infrastructure Solutions and nearly every member of the subcommittee showed up for at least a portion of the 2.5 hour hearing and made the conversation robust and constructive. I may have lost track of the actual count, but I believe that the subcommittee members have introduced to date 25 separate pieces of legislation all focused on this important initiative – and all of that congressional leadership is so appreciated and you can bet that NTCA will hang on tight to that seat at the table to ensure that the perspective of our nearly 850 small, community-based telecom providers in 46 states will be heard. For decades, NTCA’s members have led the charge in connecting rural Americans with the rest of the world by deploying advanced networks that respond to demands for cutting-edge, innovative services….in very, very low density areas. Speaking of how “cool” rural is – it was fun to see committee members jockeying for who actually was from the most rural parts of the country today.
While I was able to emphasize the work these hometown providers have done, a recent survey found that 87 percent of NTCA members’ customers can purchase broadband at 10Mbps or higher and 67 percent can access speeds above 25 Mbps. But the job is far from done. While the statistics noted are good news, they also tell the story of many rural consumers still in need of access. The story is bleaker still in other rural areas not lucky enough to be served by NTCA members. Finally, it’s not as if the job is done once rural networks are built – there’s a great deal of ongoing work to deliver quality, affordable services in these rural communities.
So what is the answer? It is a multitude of solutions but the key is ensuring you can create a business case to even consider deploying rural broadband and that is why the FCC’s High Cost Universal Service program is the cornerstone of making the economics work. Questions relating to permitting and regulation are important – but if you cannot afford to build or sustain the network, those questions never even come into play. I wish there was an easier answer but frankly the infrastructure is expensive and you simply have far too few consumers to spread that cost among in low density areas.
The committee was engaged, the hearing lasted over 2.5 hours with numerous terrific questions and I always find myself proud of the work my member companies do and relish the platform to share their stories. Other take-aways? Chairman Blackburn’s strong commitment to seeking solutions and having the leadership role to move policy along. Ranking member Doyle’s question to all of us on the panel on whether it will take additional money and financial support to build these networks and all 7 of us nodding yes. Our friends in the wireless industry acknowledging that 5G is not a rural play or the answer to the broadband deployment challenge in rural America. That NTCA members have been active in telling their stories to their congressional delegations and that showed from the comments that were made by everyone, particularly Chairmen Blackburn and Walden, Representatives Cramer from North Dakota, Shimkus from Illinois, Latta from Ohio, Long from Missouri and the list went on….And a sense – from both sides of the political aisle by the end of the hearing (and from the panel itself) that the equation will need to include money and thoughtful regulation.
The timing of the FCC’s action at their open meeting today on CAFII was also encouraging and I am looking forward to reading the texts of what the FCC approved today on the Phase II auction set to start in July. Many areas adjacent to NTCA member company areas are longing for broadband access and I remain hopeful that the tools they release will allow those local providers to step in to support broadband deployment in these neighboring territories and continue to move the ball forward for all Americans.