On January 30th, the House Energy and Commerce Communications and Technology Subcommittee held a hearing to learn from experts about how to shrink the digital divide and expand Internet access. The committee invited Joanne Hovis, owner of CTC Technology and Energy, to testify.
Make Investment Attractive
Hovis also heads up the Coalition for Local Internet Choice (CLIC) as CEO. She shared a plan that focused on creating an environment that will encourage infrastructure investment by the private and public sectors. The CLIC website shared the six main components of the plan:
Support public-private partnerships that ease the economic challenges of constructing rural and urban infrastructure;
Incent local efforts to build infrastructure — ones that private service providers can use — by making bonding and other financing strategies more feasible;
Target meaningful infrastructure capital support to rural and urban broadband deserts, not only to attract private capital but also to stimulate private efforts to gain or retain competitive advantage;
Empower local governments to pursue broadband solutions of all types, including use of public assets to attract and shape private investment patterns, so as to leverage taxpayer-funded property and create competitive dynamics that attract incumbent investment;
Require all entities that benefit from public subsidy to make enforceable commitments to build in areas that are historically unserved or underserved; and
Maximize the benefits of competition by requiring that all federal subsidy programs are offered on a competitive and neutral basis for bid by any qualified entity.
Hovis began her testimony by assessing our current approaches to shrinking the digital divide. She examined current belief in D.C. that local processes such as permitting and access hold up infrastructure investment and frankly told them that such a belief is incorrect.
From Hovis’s written testimony:
In reality, the fundamental reason we do not see comprehensive broadband deployment throughout the United States is that areas with high infrastructure costs per user, particularly rural areas, fail to attract private capital. This is not surprising. Nor is it a value judgment. It is simply how private investment works. If return on investment is low or nonexistent, the investment will not be made.
She went on to explain that the current strategy, to reduce and streamline local permitting processes from the federal level doesn’t encourage more investment in places where lack of infrastructure has created a digital divide, such as rural areas. Lobbyists from big telecom companies have convinced many lawmakers that the costs of doing business discourage their clients from investing in rural areas, but eliminating local control will only create higher profit in already profitable areas.
Reducing those requirements does not fundamentally change the economics of broadband deployment in areas where return-on-investment is challenging— because the local processes and environmental and historic protections are such a small part of the economics of reaching and serving a rural area. Rather, at best, these efforts tinker at the margins of broadband economics; at worst, they distract from the key issues and misdirect resources.
Hovis argues that we need a strategy that targets areas of the country where there is little deployment and lower incomes. We also need to adjust our strategy rather use the cookie cutter approach because communities differ.
She goes on to address the current fervor over 5G and unrealistic expectations that it will solve the connectivity problem in rural areas. She says, ‘…it’s critical to know that no credible engineer, market analyst, or carrier is claiming that 5G deployment is planned or technically appropriate for rural areas.”
Let The Public Sector Provide
Hovis addressed the fact that local communities are just as, perhaps more, motivated and capable to improve local connectivity. She provided numerous examples in which cities and counties worked with private sector ISPs in partnership and alone and described how places without restrictions tend to find creative ways to bridge the digital divide. Along the way they boost economic development, reduce public spending on telecommunications, and improve connectivity for schools and other public institutions. Hovis spent time sharing the benefit of competition that has arisen in places where local governments have addressed the connectivity issue.
Blaming localities for the digital infrastructure divide ignores these and thousands of other local efforts. At the same time, tying the hands of localities reduces their ability and incentive to work creatively with partners of all sorts to solve these problems. And preempting local authority over infrastructure assets such as light poles removes from the local toolkit incentives that localities can use to attract and shape private broadband deployment.
In short: Preempting local efforts and authority is not a winning strategy; it simply removes from the playing field one of the most important players: local government. Let me suggest that the urgency of this task, bridging the infrastructure digital divide, calls for all players to take the field.
You can read her full testimony online and watch her testimony here: