By Matt Polka, President & CEO, ACA Connects-America’s Communications Association
These difficult times have presented enormous challenges to all of us, and, as we are urged to stay apart, digital connectivity has never been more important. During this unprecedented period, we have learned just how essential high-performance broadband service is for keeping us connected to our families, jobs, schools, health-care providers, government, and businesses. And we have found that ACA Connects members have continued to provide to their nearly 10 million customers high-quality broadband services while protecting the health and safety of their employees who work on the front lines.
Just last month we completed an exhaustive analysis of how ACA Connects members’ networks have managed the huge increase in data demands. Based upon detailed metrics, our Broadband Dashboard demonstrates that, even as traffic has increased by more than 25%, network utilization – the key metric for user experience — has remained within normal operating ranges in virtually all instances. Where a rare network issue arose, it rarely involved an outage, and our members typically dealt with any issue in less than 24 hours. The survey also found that ACA Connects members continue to actively oversee their networks to provide customers with an unparalleled experience, by adding transit capacity, splitting nodes, managing channels, and upgrading hardware. This means schoolwork gets done, video business calls are uninterrupted, patients connect with doctors, and families watch their favorite shows online together, among many other things.
The fact our members’ networks have thrived during this crisis should come as no surprise. Our ACA Connects members have invested more than $10 billion over the past decade in their networks, and they continue to invest about $1 billion annually to deploy the most current broadband technologies, including DOCSIS 3.0/3.1 and all-fiber technologies. Those investments have given consumers the high performance they need and have made our networks more resilient.
In addition to managing our networks through these unforeseen circumstances, our members are contributing to their communities in meaningful ways. For example, TDS Telecom is picking up the lunch tab for any public safety official and any essential worker at local restaurants in Idaho. Vast Broadband in South Dakota opened all its Wi-Fi hot spots to anyone who needs access. It also is working with its local school districts to ensure students remain connected. Mediacom in Des Moines is working with the school district to connect 1,800 students. HTC in Conway, South Carolina, donated one ton of food so that local children could continue to receive free lunches.
Our members also are going to great lengths to address the needs of their employees. Many, like Sparklight in Fargo, North Dakota, are hiring to address increased customer demands for service. We even have companies literally feeding their own employees, like BOYCOM Vision in Poplar Bluff, Missouri, where the owners are donating cows from their own herd to take care of their employees. The stories are as numerous as the companies we work with across the country.
Serving our communities also means ensuring that our workforce is equipped to provide top-notch connectivity while keeping customers and themselves healthy. ACA Connects members provide their employees with the necessary protective equipment and have policies in place to keep our communities safe. Members are delivering broadband equipment to homes and then use their phones to talk customers through installations instead of going into homes. They are reworking their offices to ensure customers and employees are protected during their interactions. These are just a few examples of how our members are taking appropriate steps to protect everyone’s health.
We are also aware that against this backdrop, policymakers are hearing from consumers that are struggling to deal with the impact of the emergency. Many are faced with the inability to pay their rent or mortgage, their water bill, and put food on the table, let alone cover their broadband and video bills. As Congress and other government policymakers contemplate helping these consumers stay connected, we support programs that will give assistance to our customers who have been financially harmed by the emergency, including by enhancing the Federal Communications Commission’s Lifeline program, so they can maintain or obtain the same broadband service that most other consumers receive. We also support Congress providing funding to enable needed connectivity of customer households with students, so they can engage in vital video online learning on par with other students. Further, we support additional funding for the FCC’s Telehealth program. The FCC is already working to get the additional funds provided in the CARES Act out the door to health care institutions around the country. Programs like these, which use existing support mechanisms and recognize the value that our members and other communications providers bring to the table, are most efficient and limit waste, fraud, and abuse.
Should Congress decide to consider broadband infrastructure legislation, we recommend the following. First, recognize that private providers and others have built incredibly robust and reliable broadband networks. In other words, policymakers should make sure “to do no harm” and continue “light-touch” regulatory policies. Second, Congress should focus on removing barriers to deployment, especially in rural areas. This should include facilitating access to poles, ducts, conduit and rights-of-way at cost-based and non-discriminatory rates, terms, and conditions. Third, and most importantly, Congress should step up and close the digital divide by bringing high-performance broadband to unserved areas using efficient and effective support mechanisms. Together, these steps will incentivize the free market to raise capital and providers to build out to areas that previously were uneconomic, and efficiently direct taxpayer dollars to those homes and businesses most in need.
This pandemic has shown that our country has built incredibly robust and resilient communications infrastructure that has managed an exponential increase in traffic during this difficult period. We also know that there is more to be done to ensure we have the latest and best networks in the world, and that everyone can avail themselves of all that the connected world provides. Our ACA Connects members are here and ready to navigate through this difficult time together, and believe we can come through this as a more productive, innovative, and connected society.