Marketplace Tech’s Molly Wood interviewed Christopher Mitchell, the director of the Community Broadband Networks Initiative, this morning on national radio. The pair discussed how broadband providers are responding to increased demand during the Covid-19 outbreak and what barriers there are to expanding Internet access to families sheltering-in-place.
Christopher has been a guest on Marketplace Tech before, providing his perspective on issues including security concerns around Chinese-made network equipment and the effects of ending network neutrality on municipal networks.
Connecting New Subscribers
Schools and businesses have closed across the country, but many students and employees are still expected to complete work from home. This is leading households to subscribe to broadband at record levels in some areas.
There’s a lot of people who are signing up for service who didn’t have it before, or maybe they’re going to a better provider. We’re seeing in areas that have one or more cases of the virus that some of the [internet service providers] are seeing record sign-ups, in some cases twice the previous record of a daily number of new customers.
The surge in demand is creating a challenge for providers still figuring out how to safely connect new users. A number of companies have temporarily halted home installations, while others are instituting policies to protect their employees and household members. “We will need to find a way in which we can do new connections,” Christopher said on Marketplace, “because I think this connectivity is just going to become more and more important”
States Stopping Local Solutions
The novel coronavirus isn’t the only issue providers and communities are grappling with as they try to connect families stuck in their homes.
Currently, 19 states limit local governments’ authority to invest in broadband networks, restricting communities’ abilities to respond to this unprecedented need for high-quality connectivity. “We really need to see those limits go away so that communities are free to expand internet access as rapidly as they can,” Christopher argued on Marketplace Tech.
States and even the federal government have the ability to address this barrier right now, said Christopher, explaining:
The states themselves could change the laws . . . They could decide tomorrow to get rid of those limitations. The other option would be for the federal government to strike them down in some manner. Congress could do that directly, or it could condition aid of certain kinds to those states to say, “If you’re going to limit broadband investment in your state, then we’re not going to give you federal dollars to expand the networks.”
We’ve spent billions of dollars on networks that are obsolete . . . writing checks to big companies that are delivering very slow DSL that does not qualify as broadband. Those big companies have all had their shot, and it’s time to have an all-hands-on-deck approach to expanding internet access.
“A Real Test” for Rural Networks
Increasing broadband usage will strain some providers’ networks as they struggle to scale up to meet demand. Christopher identified wireless broadband companies, especially those in rural areas, as some of the providers that may face problems. “This is going to be a real test for the wireless ISPs,” he said on Marketplace Tech. “I do think we will get a winnowing of the networks that will succeed”
Want to know how your Internet access provider is measuring up? Take this speed test, co-sponsored by the Institute for Local Self-Reliance, the National Digital Inclusion Alliance, the X-Lab, and the Marconi Society.
Listen to the entire interview with Christopher on Marketplace’s website or below.