The Obama Administration is looking for ways to coordinate and improve the federal government’s approach to closing the digital divide. That’s why OTI submitted comments last week to the Broadband Opportunity Council, in response to the Council’s call for suggestions on how to address challenges related to broadband deployment, access, and adoption.
The Broadband Opportunity Council was created as part of President Obama’s latest initiative to spur investment in high-speed Internet access, which he announced just prior to the 2015 State of the Union Address. The Council consists of 25 federal agencies, led by the Departments of Commerce and Agriculture, that can play a role in “accelerating broadband deployment and promoting technology adoption” across the United States. In April, the Council published a Notice and Request for Comment to gather feedback from various stakeholders, including groups like OTI.
Our comments focus on the need for a unified approach to improve broadband outcomes, and we outline a series of short-term and long-term steps that the Broadband Opportunity Council and its member agencies can take. The recommendations are grounded in the research we’ve done on broadband competition and adoption in the U.S., as well as OTI’s on-the-ground experience partnering with local communities and our participation in the Obama Administration’s Broadband Technology Opportunities Program (BTOP).
We remind the Council that broadband access is distinct from broadband adoption. As a number of researchers have noted, focusing exclusively on increasing broadband penetration rates — or simply lowering the price of broadband through competitive or regulatory means — does not necessarily lead to greater broadband adoption on its own. Policymakers tend to think of the ‘digital divide’ as a strict dichotomy: you either have access to the Internet, or you do not. But this approach limits our understanding of the many variables that shape people’s relationships to and use of broadband access. That’s why it’s critically important to improve digital literacy tools for communities and to work with trusted local partners to find ways to improve broadband outcomes. Policymakers also cannot overlook the important role played by community anchor institutions, ranging from schools and libraries to healthcare providers, places of higher education, and other vital community support organizations.
In the short term, we recommend that the Broadband Opportunity Council:
Conduct an agency-by-agency assessment to understand what resources are available for broadband infrastructure investment and broadband adoption efforts;
Improve and synthesize data collection efforts across agencies to ensure robust analysis of broadband availability and role of various federal programs;
Adopt a standardized definition for broadband speed across all federal agencies, following the FCC’s lead in using a 25 Mbps download / 3 Mbps upload metric;
Conduct an inventory that maps all federally- and publicly-funded broadband networks, which should be made available to policymakers, researchers, and the public;
Provide federal government support for sensible policies that remove barriers to infrastructure deployment; and
Create a single position that can coordinate these initiatives across the various federal agencies.
In the longer term, we urge the Council to:
Require open access provisions on all publicly-funded broadband networks, which could lower barriers to entry for new competitors and improve overall broadband competition; and
Ensure that whenever federal agencies implement programs or introduce new services that require broadband access and/or digital literacy skills, parallel plans are made to improve access or contribute to ongoing digital literacy efforts.
Our colleagues and partners from New America’s Resilient Communities Program and the Detroit Community Technology Project also submitted an excellent letter to the Council urging its members to listen to communities directly to enrich their understanding of the issues. “We believe that a more holistic understanding of the needs, resources, and assets of low-income communities is necessary for creating a diverse broadband marketplace that creates opportunity and builds equity in all of our neighborhoods,” they wrote.
While we recognize that there is no single solution or ‘silver bullet’ that can solve all of America’s broadband challenges, the Obama Administration has a tremendous opportunity to make real progress through a coordinated and unified approach to improving broadband deployment, access, and adoption. The Broadband Opportunity Council is expected to report back to the President in the next few months with a roadmap on the “steps each agency will take to advance these goals, including specific regulatory actions or budget proposals.” We look forward to seeing what they come up with.