While broadband funding may have a place in an end-of-year COVID Relief Package, the current proposal doesn’t include many of the widely agreed upon goals of extending broadband to unserved areas and looks more like a Trojan Horse for pet projects that don’t actually help Americans dealing with fallout from the pandemic.
First, it does not include money for mapping, which is a necessary component for identifying areas that actually need federal funding to reach unserved area.
Second, it lacks any guardrails that would ensure that the money is actually directed at those unserved areas.
Accordingly, Congress should focus on funding existing FCC plans to improve broadband maps. The Broadband DATA Act requires the FCC to develop these better maps, and the FCC says it needs $65 million to implement the law.
The FCC has been begging Congress to for these funds, but instead of this minimal spend for maximum benefit, the COVID Relief Package includes expansive pet projects that would lead to network overbuilds and shoddy municipal networks.
The FCC is already distributing $16 billion for service in unserved areas through the current Rural Digital Opportunity Fund (RDOF) auction. All Commissioners have said time and again that the most pressing need is to develop better maps that can identify census blocks that are partially served so as make these areas eligible for support in a future funding round.
If Congress includes new funding for broadband infrastructure as part of a Lame Duck package, it should follow several important principles to actually move the needle on extending broadband to unserved communities and homes:
- focus funding on unserved areas and use a challenge process to verify;
- avoid conditioning funding eligibility on antiquated regulatory classifications that discourage participation from otherwise qualified broadband providers – you shouldn’t be required to offer phone service in order to qualify for funds to provide broadband;
- make awards on a technology-neutral basis (no fiber preferences); and
- include robust accountability measures to ensure funding is used for its intended purpose within specified timeframes.
These are pretty simple requirements that would lead to maximum benefit for people most in need. Building new networks run by in experienced local governments in areas where broadband availability already exists, does not solve the problem.
We’ve already set aside billions of dollars, outside of the upcoming COVID Package, what needs to be done in the current agreement is fund the mapping process, so dollars go where they are needed most. Not throw billions of taxpayer dollars in the air and see where they land.