Overcoming barriers to rural broadband expansion

Rural Internet

Rural lawmakers are gearing up for congressional oversight of broadband expansion efforts at the federal level.

In response, advocates, farm groups, and telecom experts are speaking up on overcoming key barriers to successfully closing the digital divide. Kristian Stout is the director of innovation policy for the International Center for Law and Economics. He says there are several remaining barriers to funding rural broadband expansion.

“One of the threats that could affect the efficacy of this program could be different state authorities not necessarily focusing on people who have traditionally been very difficult to connect to the internet but looking at lower hanging fruit that it’s easier to connect, like people who might have slower than extremely fast but are faster than what we consider nonexistent broadband service. There are a number of hurdles that have just traditionally existed everywhere in the United States for broadband deployment. These include things like municipal permitting, getting rights of way, and then one of the largest drivers cost is access to utility poles across the United States. There are some more complicated problems that go into accessing these poles around whether they’re privately-owned or whether they’re owned by municipalities and co-ops, which can easily explode costs for a particular deployment and make it so that the money that the federal government is directing to reach these remote areas is not being fully-used to reach these people but is instead being wasted,” Stout said.

But he notes there are several ways government agencies can ensure efficient use of the money.

“The first thing to say about this is that, by and large, private providers have done a great job of reaching the United States. We’re one of the most connected countries in the world. Congress has direct authority over some entities that own these poles that can explode cost. Something like the Tennessee Valley Authority, for instance. Entities like it that are under direct congressional control are obligated to reply to these requests in a timely manner and do so in a way that doesn’t try to unfairly shift costs on the private providers,” Stout said.

There are several requirements that go along with funding on this level.

“NTIA is the National Telecommunications Information Administration. They’re another federal agency that’s responsible for dispersing the grants to the states that are coming out through the money that the federal government allocated. When Congress passed a law that created this money, they did not put a huge number of strings on the money. They want this money to go right to the states to be used to connect people. When the NTIA got access to this program, they started to put a number of strings on it that are technically not in the law itself. NTIA should revise the application requirements that it’s putting out there because I think it’s misleading to the states and makes it look to the states like there’s a number of things they have to spend money on. At the same time, if NTIIA doesn’t do that, I think there’s a role for state regulators to be aware that these requirements from NTIA are just recommendations and are not required by the program.”

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