Throughout his career in government, new Federal Communications Commission (FCC) Chairman Ajit Pai has made it clear that he cares about broadband deployment — a lot. Now, in one of his first acts as chairman, he has taken strong action to bring closer the day when fast broadband for every American is a reality.
Chairman Pai recently announced the formation of the Broadband Deployment Advisory Committee, a task force that will offer “specific” recommendations to speed broadband deployment and, in his words, “close the digital divide.” To aid the FCC in its work, he is seeking a diverse membership for the committee, including specialists in both rural and urban broadband deployment. It’s good to see this kind of broad outreach, a recognition that the FCC doesn’t have all the answers but wants to take fresh advice from stakeholders around the country.
Pai’s action is an excellent first step towards accelerating broadband deployment (and adoption) throughout the country. Getting great minds together to hack a solution is both wise and urgent. And perhaps most important, it’s a sign that fact-based decision-making is now the order of the day at the FCC.
But it doesn’t take a task force to tell us that the biggest part of the solution is private investment. Back in 2009, when the National Broadband Plan was being developed, FCC adviser Blair Levin estimated that it would take up to $350 billion to deploy broadband fully to every American — and that doesn’t account for future upgrades that would be needed as technology advances. The country has made a lot of progress. Two companies, Verizon and AT&T, have invested around $143 billion in just the past four years, the vast majority of which supports broadband — but there is still much to do, and we will look to the private sector to take the lead.
Essential to encouraging investment is chopping away at regulatory barriers to the deployment of high-speed broadband. In fact, Pai is seeking members for the committee who have specialized knowledge of regulations that are hindering broadband deployment. The committee will be examining a potential return of broadband to information services status and the stimulation of investment greater regulatory certainty will bring. Changes to pole attachment rules and returning Internet service providers to the set of privacy requirements now applied to the rest of the Internet ecosystem will also be examined.
In particular, the Committee will seek to develop a model code that can be reviewed by local governments on regulations for franchising, zoning, permitting and rights of way. The model code will not involve the FCC preempting local regulations. Instead, it’s a way to show any local government how it can adopt a policy designed to lead to greater and faster broadband deployment for its citizens by eliminating its own regulatory barriers that may be hindering providers from making investments in its area.
There’s no time to waste in getting these efforts underway. As technology improves, “broadband deployment” means more — and will take more investment — now than it did back in 2009. As the nation moves towards rapid adoption of devices connected to the Internet of Things and wireless transition to super-fast 5G, the gap between broadband haves and have-nots is at risk of growing. That’s why it’s important to have regulatory policies that encourage deployment everywhere.
As someone who represented a rural district in Congress for nearly three decades, I have seen firsthand how costly and difficult it is to deploy broadband in rural regions. I also know from that experience just how critical high-speed Internet access is for rural economic success. This history makes me particularly interested in efforts to speed the broadband deployment that will spur rural economic development. But there are needs all across the country, and the FCC’s advisory committee will take note of them.
As Chairman Pai wrote in announcing the advisory committee, broadband is “becoming the 21st-century gateway to jobs, health care, education, information, and economic development everywhere, from the smallest town to the largest city.” Prioritizing broadband deployment is a sound and needed step for an acting chairman who, even in these early days, is making a solid contribution.