Too frequently lost in the current debate over “net neutrality” is a focus on what policies would actually work best to bring faster broadband to rural America — or in some cases, bring broadband for the first time.
Half of Mississippians live in rural areas, compared to 1 in 5 Americans nationwide. According to the Federal Communications Commission, 39 percent of rural Americans lack access to broadband (defined as download speeds of 25Mbps), as compared to only 4 percent of urban Americans. That’s the broadband gap, and it impairs rural America’s economy. Few single efforts would do more to boost the economic prospects of America’s rural regions — including much of Mississippi — than closing this divide.
To be clear, there will be no new broadband without investment. Some can be provided through public funds, such as the FCC’s High-Cost Fund and state-supported programs. But the vast majority of the needed investment must come from the private sector.
The potential of broadband to help rural Mississippi and rural America overall is almost unlimited. Our rural regions are business-friendly environments characterized by lower costs of doing business as compared to the national average. Land costs less. Taxes are typically lower, and the prevailing wages are generally not as high. By defeating distance, fast broadband makes it possible to run a business from almost anywhere and to realize the cost saving benefits rural regions offer. More people will naturally want to set up their businesses in small communities that are also great places to work and raise a family.
Few business owners will benefit more from faster broadband than farmers and ranchers, who will have an array of tools with far greater capabilities for everyday operations, staying informed on markets, and raising yields through precision agriculture, which represents a major advance. It potentially offers the orders of magnitude improvements for today’s agriculture that mechanization offered a century ago. With broadband communications, farmers can now have real-time monitoring of conditions in every part of the farm and can respond in a far more exact and efficient way that brings higher crop yields and higher profits.
So what policies will help bring faster broadband to rural America?
The key is stimulating private investment, which depends on regulatory certainty. The business case for carriers to invest large sums in rural areas is challenging under the best of circumstances. Fiber-optic lines must be deployed over long distances and challenging terrain to reach lightly-populated communities where the subscriber base for services may not be large. If the carriers are uncertain about the shape of future regulations that will affect their ability to recover these investments, the large sums that are needed will simply not be spent.
In 2015, the FCC overturned the light-touch regulatory principles under which the Internet grew and flourished for two decades beginning with the Clinton Administration. That 20-year period was the golden era for broadband investment, enabling our nation to create a communications network that became the envy of the world.
But under the FCC’s 2015 order, broadband was treated as a “telecommunications service” subject to the rules created in the 1930s for monopoly telephones. Under the 2015 rules, the FCC could decide to regulate prices and set other onerous terms and conditions for broadband service. With uncertainty about which future telecommunications service rules the FCC might apply, carrier investment severely declined and in large parts of rural America came to a standstill.
Fortunately, under different leadership the FCC in 2017 restored the historic designation of broadband as an information service. The door is open once again to large-scale broadband investment, but some in Congress are now urging a return of the heavy-handed regulatory treatment imposed on broadband in 2015. That would be a major mistake for the country at large and particularly punishing for broadband investment in our rural regions.
To get to precision agriculture and to other major advancements — maybe even a driverless tractor — the country will need new 5G broadband technology that offers much faster broadband speeds and lower “latency” (to be sure the driverless tractor plows a straight line). But 5G technology will require even larger levels of investment, which will only come if carriers can be certain of the rules going forward.
There are things Congress should act on, including a forward-looking net neutrality policy that assures open networks, a statutory determination that broadband is an information service to be overseen lightly by the FCC, and a set of privacy rules that gives consumers control over their personal information across the span of the Internet ecosystem. A return to the 2015 heavy-handed regulation that depressed investment and penalized rural areas, however, is the wrong approach for the country and most definitely the wrong approach for rural America.