Too often in Washington, the debate is characterized only by the extremes. It’s either zero regulation or heavily-subsidized, government-run bureaucracies. Confiscatory taxes or “read my lips” no new taxes. Unfettered free trade or xenophobic isolationism. The reality, of course, is that most issues require a bit more nuance.
With respect to broadband deployment, government clearly has a role to play. It is not as builder of networks, as our nation is blessed with a highly competitive marketplace already investing hundreds of billions of dollars in ever-improving infrastructure. It is not as creator of content and applications, as there again we see extraordinary creativity and innovation from our private sector. Certainly government must oversee allocation of radio spectrum to prevent interference and ensure this limited resource is put to its highest and best use. And government has been an essential funder of basic research at universities over the past 65 years.
Most important, of course, government must facilitate a business climate that rewards innovation and promotes competition, encouraging investment, risk-taking and private entrepreneurship. And the precise policies for achieving this are fodder for most Presidential campaigns’ domestic agendas. But another one of government’s important but under-appreciated roles is as a market participant, and in this regard there is more we could do right now to promote broadband deployment and usage.
Every year the federal government invests more than $34 billion to house low-income people, leveraging $10 billion in private investment through the Low-Income Housing Tax Credit program. The government tries to be a smart buyer of such real estate, opting for such attributes as energy efficiency and construction quality. This is clearly not regulation, but rather government spending our tax dollars prudently. But so far the government has not chosen to build broadband-ready low income housing. It is time it started.
The 12 million low-income Americans who live in such government-subsidized housing are often caught in a cycle of dependence on government - living off the tax rolls, serviced by myriad social service programs, and not fully functioning in our technology-rich, market economy. They frequently lack in education, information and opportunity. As shown by the extraordinary success of the non-profit One Economy Corporation, these are precisely the folks who most benefit from broadband access and usage. Access to information and applications around education, health care and government can help those living in low income housing better help themselves, which is good for our whole society. Any minimal increase in costs for such units would be more than offset by the reduction in government benefits needed as residents leverage new opportunities and get off the public dole.
To date, 42 states have amended their housing finance policies to build broadband-ready publicly-financed homes and ensure the ongoing monthly costs of high-speed access are allowable operating expenses, like utilities. This has brought broadband into the homes of more than 200,000 low-income Americans to date according to One Economy.
In order to build on the success achieved at the state-level and help bring broadband into the homes of America’s lowest income citizens, those living in federally controlled public housing, the U.S. Department of Housing & Urban Development should bring technology into the public housing projects it finances. This should not even require a new law, but could be accomplished by an Executive Order that:
1. Mandates the inclusion of infrastructure that permits unit-based access to high-speed Internet connectivity in all new public housing units and public housing redevelopment projects;
2. Promotes and permits the retrofitting in public housing developments with infrastructure that allows for high-speed Internet connectivity under public housing development and modernization programs, including the Capital Fund;
3. Promotes and permits the provision of high-speed Internet service as an allowable public housing operating expense.
Every politician in America praises the benefits of broadband. But actions speak louder than words, and it’s time to act.