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Broadband: Four Legislative Steps To Ensure Economic Growth

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A middle-school student needs to do her homework: she needs the internet.

A small business owner needs to purchase supplies for his inventory: he needs the internet.

A recently laid-off head of a household needs to file for unemployment benefits: he needs the internet.

And they just don’t need the internet. They need high-speed internet, otherwise known as broadband.

Dial-up access may have been sufficient for a 20th-century economy. But as our nation becomes more and more reliant on the internet in everyday life, dial-up doesn’t allow a middle-school student to download museum files from her rural home in Arkansas, a small business owner to purchase needed supplies from a vendor, or a father who was just laid-off to apply easily for unemployment benefits to feed his family.

Still think that broadband is a luxury? Think again. Broadband is the infrastructure needed for our nation’s economic survival.

More than one-third of the U.S. population is currently digitally disconnected. Our country languishes in 15th place in the world in broadband penetration. If we are going to be truly committed to educating and training the workers of the 21st century, we must do all we can to ensure that they are on equal footing with their global competitors.

Thankfully, more and more people understand the pressing nature of the digital divide. Hundreds of local and national organizations are advocating for their communities’ access to broadband. And now, after years of submitting comments and meeting with government officials, they eagerly await a Federal Communications Commission’s ruling next week on how it plans to regulate high-speed internet.

Regardless of the outcome of the FCC’s decision, progressive state legislators can and must lay the framework for how broadband access and adoption will take place in their communities. Because just like with other basic community needs like education, health care, and transportation, broadband access requires the involvement of state legislators to determine how these critical public structures will take shape.

As we have seen with health care, the environment, and workers’ rights, progressive accomplishments at the state level can drive a national movement.  State legislators can take the four following revenue-neutral and widely supported steps to lead in broadband policy (for a complete analysis, please see PSN’s Broadband Policy Options Report for 2011):

1. Create a Broadband Task Force
As each state has its own needs - a unique geography, a unique demography, and a unique economy - its policy makers must assess on their own how to best invest in broadband to achieve full access. To accomplish this, more than 22 states have established broadband councils or task forces, and out of these, 19 were created by the state legislative branch. For instance, Oregon established the Oregon Broadband Advisory Council and the Oregon Broadband Advisory Council Fund to encourage and support the deployment of broadband telecommunications services and reduce barriers to broadband adoption, especially within un-served and under-served populations.

2. Map High-Speed Internet Infrastructure
Mapping high-speed internet availability and adoption, and making that information accessible to the public, is an important tool for legislators and local planning groups who seek to evaluate the current status of their states’ high- speed internet infrastructure and utilization. In Washington state, progressive legislators enacted a bill to collect and map data on broadband access and adoption. The bill directs the state’s Department of Information Services to develop a map that demonstrates where broadband services are and are not currently available, and to work with other agencies to identify the communities most in need of new or additional broadband services. 

3. Create and expand programs to bridge the digital divide
The federal government and states already have programs that subsidize telephone services for low-income and rural residents. With the success of this program, called the Universal Service Fund, we can direct a portion of those existing monies to high-speed internet.  In its 2010 Telecommunications Plan, the Vermont Department of Public Service recommends the inclusion of broadband in the state’s Universal Service Fund so that it can become affordable to low-income and rural households.

4. Launch Digital Literacy Programs
Beyond investing in broadband infrastructure and finding ways to make broadband services more affordable, state legislators should promote investments in education and community media programs to overcome the digital divide. Washington state legislators recently established a program to provide resources to community technology centers that provide hands-on technology access and training to residents. And New Mexico enacted a bill allowing media literacy courses in secondary public schools - incorporating media literacy as a more central part of a school curriculum to give New Mexico children better economic opportunities in a global market.

Warning: Protect Local High-Speed Internet Networks
Local entities have often taken power in their own hands to serve their communities’ need for broadband services. State laws should protect, not block, the development of municipal systems, public-private partnerships, and other alternatives that promise to bring the benefits of high-speed internet to more people. In 2010, a North Carolina Senate bill was introduced to impose significant barriers to municipal broadband initiatives in the state. The bill was defeated, but its introduction for a third consecutive year demonstrates that the threat to municipal networks persists. In fact, eighteen states now have laws restricting cities and towns from building their own high-speed internet networks.

If enacted, policies like these will encourage true access to, as well as adoption and utilization of broadband - sparking job growth and securing infrastructure needed to grow the American economy. Legislative oversight over broadband does not undermine competition, it encourages it by creating mechanisms that assess the need for broadband access and takes the steps to stimulate broadband adoption by making it affordable and usable. Modernizing communications policy does not mean deregulating it, but ensuring that no one is left in the digital dark.

In short, state government must propel action that will result in more investment and broadband for all.