Expanding Access to Rural Broadband
By ACA Connects President and CEO Matthew M. Polka
ACA Connects represents more than 700 small and mid-sized broadband providers. Most serve fewer than 1,000 customers. Most serve rural areas and smaller communities. If there is one hallmark of ACA Connects’ members, it is that they are part of their communities, serving their friends and neighbors and their schools, health care facilities, and workplaces. For them, taking FCC Chairman Ajit Pai’s Keep Americans Connected Pledge was just doing business as usual.
In all, over the past decade, our members have invested more than $10 billion in their broadband networks as they respond to consumer demands and competitors. Virtually all have deployed sophisticated DOCSIS networks and many provide gigabit service. And they continue to invest enormous amounts annually to upgrade their network capabilities. It thus should come as no surprise that during the COVID-19 emergency, not one of our members’ networks wasn’t up the task of providing the performance their customers expected.
Our members also have invested to expand the reach of their networks, including into unserved areas. One factor in making this possible was the work of the FCC to reduce barriers to deployment, and it is critical – as you will hear discussed further today – that this work continues. The more we can facilitate network expansion into unserved areas without spending any federal funds, the more we can target limited federal funds to the areas that need them most and for other purposes.
Our members also see an opportunity to use their experience with rural builds to participate in federal funding programs. Many participated in the Connect America Fund auction, and many won. Many more are seeking to participate in the Rural Digital Opportunity Fund auction – about 27 percent of all interested bidders — and because they are likely to be bidding in the highest performance – gigabit – tier, I expect a great many of them will win.
Of course, so much more needs to be done to close the urban-rural digital divide and ensure all in-need individuals and households have access to high performance broadband service so they can fully engage in telework, telehealth, online learning and other activities that are so essential in today’s society. So, how do we get from here to there? Let me quickly provide a path.
First, we need better data about locations that don’t have high performance broadband connectivity. The FCC is moving ahead with this task, but Congress needs to provide funding to make this possible. Second, we cannot undermine the market. Every year, driven by customers and competitors, the private sector invests 10 times more than all governments in aggregate, and by permitting this to continue, we can reach our goal much, much sooner – and the more we rely on private investment, the more money we can free up to expedite deployment in unserved areas and the more we can spend for adoption programs. Third, government should continue to reduce barriers to deployment, thereby lowering the cost of builds. Fourth, where locations remain high cost and unserved, government should provide support efficiently and effectively and give in-need people the means to connect to high-performance wireline broadband services.
By nature, I am an optimist. I have seen what ACA Connects members and other providers have achieved and what they can do. I am confident that by learning the lessons to date and by joining in a concerted effort, we can close the digital divide and ensure everyone is connected to high-performance broadband.