Bill Johnson, Carpe Geo Evangelist, AppGeo

There has been a very interesting turn of events in the national broadband landscape that I don’t think anyone could have predicted.

A new sense of urgency for broadband

First, the COVID-19 pandemic has raised public awareness and support for broadband to historic high levels. We all observed how those members of society disconnected from the online world were severely disadvantaged throughout the pandemic. As a result, there appears to be nothing but widespread public and political support to “close the digital divide”, and to do so as quickly as possible. I think it’s fair to say that there is a shared sense of urgency on this issue that did not exist before the pandemic.

New broadband funding is suddenly available

The pandemic also resulted in Congress approving a massive financial relief package earlier this year. On June 2, the US Treasury released $350 billion to state, local, and tribal entities through the American Relief Program Act (ARPA) that included broadband infrastructure as an eligible category for the funds. This was a major unanticipated development for broadband and this largesse is in addition to anticipated federal broadband funding (currently $65 billion) in the Infrastructure Bill awaiting Congressional action. It is also in addition to funds that many states had already allocated within their own budgets for broadband.

Interestingly, the US Treasury guidance on the use of the ARPA funds for broadband infrastructure does not follow the current Federal Communications Commission (FCC) guidance. Treasury has opted to prioritize fiber broadband infrastructure with a minimum speed of 100 mbps symmetrical, while the FCC currently supports projects at much slower minimum speeds of 25/3 using a range of broadband delivery technologies. In my opinion, this was a smart move by the Treasury and it aligns with a growing sense that the minimum speed definitions from the FCC should be revised upward.

FCC leadership on broadband is in limbo

At the same time that these developments have been occurring, the FCC appears to be hampered by the political situation in Washington DC. For unknown reasons, the White House has not yet nominated a new FCC Chair. This leaves the FCC, governed by a 5-member Commission, with a 2-2 split of Democratic and Republican Commissioners (one seat is currently vacant), including the Acting Chair whose term expires at the end of this year. The result is that the Commission is effectively in limbo except for actions that are agreeable to both parties. This is unfortunate since Congress passed the Broadband DATA Act in March 2020 (just as the pandemic was starting) which tasks FCC with modernizing the national broadband mapping program. It’s a major undertaking with substantial new and complex requirements. The new maps are badly needed and patience is eroding.

FCC is required to provide a 6-month notice in advance of the initial collection of data from broadband companies, which the Broadband DATA Act specifies will occur in March and September each year, but no notice has yet been issued. This means that the first collection of new broadband data will happen no sooner than September of next year, and the new mapping that will result from this data will take additional time. In all likelihood, there will not be new FCC broadband maps until sometime in 2023.

A race among the states for complete broadband coverage

What I observe happening now is that some states are not waiting for the FCC or anyone else. They are moving quickly to make use of the ARPA funds for last-mile broadband projects, knowing that the funds must be spent by the end of 2024, a little over 3 years from now. It is also apparent that states are seeking to improve their economic competitiveness compared with other states, with the clear understanding that completing border-to-border broadband creates health, education, environmental, and economic benefits immediately and for years to come.

All broadband services are not equal either, which may explain why Vermont (to cite one example) has committed to providing a fiber broadband connection to every address in the state. I see that as a smart strategic “future-proofing” move by Vermont since the growing use of broadband will require higher speeds and the reliable service that fiber to the home connections provide.

A rare moment of opportunity

This is truly a rare moment of opportunity for states, with full alignment of public support, political will, and new financial resources. It’s not often that we see this perfect trifecta. In fact, as I look at the situation with the benefit of hindsight, it seems to me that the starting gun on the new race among the states for border-to-border broadband was fired on June 2 when ARPA funds were released.

While some states have taken an early lead in this race, it is certainly not too late for the rest to lace up their track shoes and join in. To take this metaphor further, it is a distance race, probably a relay race, rather than a sprint. What’s needed to make best use of the funds is the same mix of raw ingredients that have always been needed. And that is a clear understanding of where the unserved are located and the existing broadband infrastructure that can be extended to reach them. In short, mapping is needed. But to really be effective, the map needs to be something better, something more comprehensive, something dynamic that can serve as a living dashboard to manage a state broadband program.

It seems to me that the starting gun on the new race among the states for border-to-border broadband was fired on June 2 when ARPA funds were released.

We see three categories of need for the mapping: targeting the need, tracking activity, and measuring outcomes. I’ve written previously about this and described it as “a full-color approach to broadband”.

Lace up, let’s go!

If you want to take full advantage of this current moment of opportunity, there is no time to waste. The race is on to take full advantage of ARPA funds and the momentum generated by the pandemic, so now is the time for action. That action needs mapping to guide the process. We can help. Let’s talk.

Update 27-October-2021

Yesterday, President Biden nominated FCC Acting Chair, Jessica Rosenworcel, to become the new permanent FCC Chair. He also nominated former FCC official, Gigi Sohn, to fill the other vacancy on the 5-member Commission. Both require Senate confirmation. This is great news and should end the “in limbo” status at FCC. The overall message in my blog remains the same, with the added bonus of renewed attention and likely changes in broadband policy from the FCC. What a dynamic and evolving story this is!