Can the Digital Divide Finally be Bridged?

Some local governments are experiencing success at expanding affordable access to high-speed broadband.

Some local governments are experiencing success at expanding affordable access to high-speed broadband. SHUTTERSTOCK

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COMMENTARY | Local leaders are identifying creative solutions and partnerships to provide more equitable broadband access.

The Internet has become so ubiquitous that the idea of living without it can seem unfathomable.  But for the millions of unserved and underserved residents in rural areas stuck on the wrong side of the digital divide, lack of access to reasonably priced, high-speed broadband is a daily reality. Largely the result of a series of policy decisions, deregulation and provider industry monopoly, the lack of competition has led to market failure and left people with little choice.

There is an inherent economic reality for rural services—greater per capita costs exist when geographical distances are large and population densities are low. This often makes companies reluctant to invest in infrastructure for fear of being unable to quickly recoup their investment.

Historically, the United States government has stepped in to subsidize the development of infrastructure for the public good. Two federal agencies, the Rural Utilities Service and the Federal Communications Commission, have been tasked with subsidizing rural broadband. However, due to an absence of coordinated federal policies coupled with little regulatory accountability, access to quality internet service is still lacking.

Frustrated with limited deployments, high prices and slow speeds, some municipalities have decided to take matters into their own hands, installing community networks through muni-fiber.  The best-known example, Chattanooga, Tennessee, created a city network by modernizing the old system with fiber optics. It became the first U.S. city to roll out a gigabit network, transforming Chattanooga into a tech destination and revitalizing its economy.

Other cities have opted for a different model: installing a conduit system with dark fiber, which gives them the choice to lease to Internet Service Providers (ISPs) or switch to a municipal network in the future. A low-cost, low-risk option, the system allows ISPs to place and maintain their own fiber-optic cables. The city manages the asset leasing and creates an open platform for local provider competition. Allowing municipalities to take control of their networks on an evenhanded, open basis can create an environment that fosters adoption and innovation.

However, there has been significant legislative resistance from big telecommunications and cable lobbyists at the state level to restrict municipal broadband projects. As a result, 19 states have enacted legislation that blocks or restricts municipalities from providing telecommunications services.

Nebraska is one of the states that disempower municipalities from providing broadband. Fortunately, the city of Lincoln devised a way of working within the state law. Repurposing over 350 miles of abandoned pipes, it installed a conduit system in water lines, waste lines and natural gas lines, then leased it out to seven ISPs. Motivated by the network’s success, the city later added Fiber-to-the-Home (FTTH) projects and expanded the system.

By building out all or part of their own communications infrastructure, communities have created their own pathway and freed themselves from the stranglehold of big telecommunications and cable companies. They also reaped the civic and economic benefits that came with controlling their own communications networks. Other U.S. cities have started following suit—there are already over 500 communities served by a form of municipally-owned fiber networks in the country. In these communities, it’s been noted that “numerous examples of economic development achievements have occurred as a result of local governments deploying a municipal broadband network.” These include job creation, business attraction, business support, telecommuting, research, tech and entrepreneurship, savings and increased property values.

The innovation of municipalities is encouraging, but bringing private providers to the table remains an important component to close the digital divide. In order to increase broadband access and quality, policies that promote competition must be put in place. Currently, incumbent ISPs with market power have little incentive to invest in network infrastructure or reduce prices in less populated areas. By removing barriers to market entry and inviting more players in, providers would be driven to compete. In turn, this would increase choice and drive prices down for customers.

So, what is the most logical next step for local leaders looking to attract private providers?  Adopting strategies to facilitate increased installation of fiber.

Wireless technologies can be best understood as extensions of fiber networks, not as replacements to wired technologies. Often little known by a general audience, all land-based wireless systems used by homes and business eventually connect to a physical wire. Currently, private providers run into huge challenges installing fiber because the rules, procedures and policies differ so significantly from market to market.

Take New York City for example. In Manhattan, telecommunications providers have access to a nice, neat grid to easily run fiber cables. However, just across the river in Brooklyn, the same providers are forced to trench the roadways and navigate a much more complicated system, creating massive inefficiencies—vastly increasing the length of time it takes to deliver new services. Inefficiencies like this will disincentivize providers from installing fiber in areas with little to no return on investment.

Imagine if we never built highways to transfer physical goods— that’s where wireless networks stand today, disconnected and disorganized. We need to create the new neutral conduits between cities and localities across the country. If that common infrastructure isn’t in place, we’re left with a marketplace only of a few. 

The emergence of 5G wireless networks will only exacerbate this issue. Despite claims that 5G will help rural America close the digital divide, without a commitment to investing in the wider infrastructure and pathway, 5G networks are likely to be limited to areas that already have fiber assets—making it unlikely that 5G will be extended to rural areas anytime soon.

A focus on enabling fiber pathways—rights of ways, conduits and dark fiber—is the best framework to accelerate deployment and effectuate digital equity. One way to do this is when cities’ and states are already-planning road construction to allow private industry rights of way access to install fiber. Not only does this allow the infrastructure to be available for future projects, it enables private providers to lease infrastructure to states and municipalities and bridge the “last mile.”

America’s future success is predicated on creating a dynamic and competitive broadband ecosystem. As the internet becomes increasingly integral for success in the modern age—essential for education, employment and innovation—the need for equitable access nationwide is of crucial importance.

Shrihari Pandit is the President and CEO of Stealth Communications, the NYC-based ISP he co-founded in 1995. Stealth, having built its own fiber-optic network throughout the city, provides high-bandwidth connectivity services to a broad roster of customers in business, education and government. Prior to Stealth, Mr. Pandit was a network-security consultant to various software and telecom companies, including MCI, Sprint and Sun Microsystems. He also served as an independent consultant to several U.S. agencies, including NASA and the National Infrastructure Protection Center (NIPC), now part of the Department of Homeland Security.

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