Can Congress Fix Rural Broadband in 2019?


Fixing rural broadband has been a top issue for a decade or more.  Bipartisan interest in passing an Infrastructure package next Congress, and the recognition that improving digital infrastructure in rural areas is as critical as shoring up roads and bridges improves the odds something can happen.  The new Democratic House Majority is making infrastructure a high priority.

There is no dispute on the scope of the problem: too many Americans lack access to internet service at adequate speeds and are being left behind in the 21st Century economy.  What is missing is agreement on the solution.

Previous attempts to address rural broadband have been limited.  The FCC has established programs under the Universal Service Fund, such as the Connect America and Mobility Funds, to provide one-time capital infusion for extending rural broadband.  Congress has passed legislation reducing the cost of access to rights of way by coordinating telcom infrastructure deployment with federal highway projects (Dig Once) and improving broadband coverage maps which determine where federal support for rural broadband is allocated.  The FCC is streamlining deployment of wireless networks by reducing regulatory barriers.  While helpful, these limited funding efforts and policy changes just skirt around the edge of the problem: the market failure in rural, hard to serve areas where the high cost to provide service does not offer enough economic incentive to invest.

The cost to connect the estimated 24 million Americans in rural areas ranges from $20 to $60 Billion.  This price tag has been hard for many in Congress to swallow.   However, bipartisan interest in legislation to address the nation’s inadequate infrastructure – including its digital infrastructure – suggest that more lawmakers understand government has a role to play in ending the digital divide.  The growing economic disparity between rural and urban areas; the link between lack of access to high speed internet and economic opportunity; and, the emergence of rural voters as a political force make addressing the rural broadband issue more urgent.

There are many sticking points to be resolved in the rural broadband debate.  How to ensure that all technologies (satellite, wireless, and fiber) are eligible to receive funding?  How to balance the rights of state and local governments to regulate access to rights of way while also streamlining regulatory barriers to network deployment?  How to target funding to unserved areas and avoid over-building private investment?  How much new funding to allocate and how to pay for it?

These are not insignificant problems to resolve, however, Congress seems ready to roll up its sleeves and begin the hard work of crafting legislation.  Despite the willingness of Democrats and Republicans to set aside political differences and make infrastructure legislation a priority, however, the sooner lawmakers act the better the chance that a bill can become law this Congress.   As the 2020 Presidential election gets closer, bipartisan cooperation is bound to evaporate making cooperation on an infrastructure package elusive.