Witnesses at today’s House Small Business Committee hearing stressed that community-based broadband expansion solutions are key to ensuring small businesses can best utilize broadband capabilities.
Broadband expansion does not have a one-size-fits-all solution; rather, the Federal government – specifically Congress and the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) – needs to make sure that funding and other resources are being used to support exactly what is needed in a given community, witnesses said.
“If broadband infrastructure is going to achieve its promise, we need to make sure Federal funds flow to the solutions these communities want, including making it much easier to fund a community-owned network,” said Peggy Schaffer, executive director of ConnectMaine Authority.
Schaffer went on to explain that currently, Federal programs are not effective at guaranteeing broadband expansion is actually taking place.
“We have found Federal programs are ill-suited to meet these community needs or interest,” she said. “In Maine, both the [Department of Agriculture (USDA)] programs and the FCC auctions have failed to bring service to communities in a timely manner. Combined with the fact that areas that have been awarded Federal funds – even if the network is not built – are no longer eligible for any Federal funding, spells disaster for many communities.”
She added that when “the award goes to provide a service that is expensive, not what the communities want, or is satellite-based, those communities lose out on building broadband that meets their current and future needs.”
Schaffer wasn’t all doom and gloom during the hearing, she heaped praise on a provision in the American Rescue Plan known as the Capital Fund Projects. She remarked that the Capital Fund Projects is “so exciting to states. It puts the funds closest to those community efforts, through state grants.”
She explained that state infrastructure grants are “the best match for a community-driven process that includes digital literacy and digital inclusion. Ensuring community engagement in the project boosts subscription rates which makes infrastructure investments sustainable for communities and providers … Build it and they will come is not a strategy for success in broadband.”
Matt Dunne, founder and executive director of Center on Rural Innovation, spent much of his time at the hearing addressing the role broadband expansion can play in helping small businesses succeed. He also stressed that simply having broadband access isn’t enough, and small businesses need access to high-speed broadband. He noted that upload and download speeds required to use common internet-based applications are rising substantially due to data needs.
“Unfortunately, that trend makes the FCC’s existing 25/3mbps benchmark inadequate where it’s the norm, and, sadly, still aspirational for millions of unserved and underserved rural Americans who can’t engage with streaming content, cloud-based services, and video conferencing applications because of inadequate connectivity,” Dunne said.
To ensure that businesses have access to the speeds they need, Dunne said it is “critical that the vast majority of future funding should go toward providing a minimum of 100mbps upload and download speeds, and networks capable of scaling to a gigabit or more. To do otherwise is only setting ourselves up for a rural-urban divide five years from now even after a massive infrastructure investment – something none of us want to see.”
The committee also heard from Tim Waibel, president of the Minnesota Corn Growers Association and a corn, soybean, and hog producer, who addressed where the Federal government is allocating its funding. He asked the committee to consider a few questions when determining where funding should be allocated and who should be tasked with providing broadband to rural communities and farms. Among those questions, he asked, “Do they have a stake in rural America beyond making money in providing broadband service? Do they have a proven track record in serving rural America? And do they have the boots on the ground to get the job done?”
He continued, “from my vantage point, the Department of Agriculture, the rural electric cooperatives, and other similar entities with a long history of working with USDA check each of these boxes.” However, he added “that’s not where the lion’s share of Federal broadband dollars has gone. Instead, billions of dollars have gone to other Federal agencies to stand up programs using other broadband providers that are often protected from competition even if the service they provide is substandard.”
Waibel acknowledged that some on the committee are considering creating another Federal program to improve broadband expansion. “Frankly, I do not believe we are going to get a different result if we go down the same old road,” he remarked during the hearing. “Addressing the needs of rural America, including broadband needs, is the mission of the Department of Agriculture, not-for-profit rural electric cooperatives, and the like — and, yet, the dollars they have at their disposal have paled in comparison to the dollars under other programs and providers that simply do not check the boxes that I just mentioned,” he said.