On December 2, 2015, the U.S. House of Representative’s Committee on Energy & Commerce’s Subcommittee on Communications and Technology held a markup (vote) on a discussion draft bill aimed at facilitating the deployment of broadband Internet service. Among other things, the bill aimed to remove barriers to broadband access by streamlining permitting and “rights of way” processes, and reducing deployment costs by ensuring non-discriminatory access to already in-place fixed infrastructure – utility poles, conduits, and ducts.
The bill has some opponents, primarily electric utilities, rural electric cooperatives, and public power providers. Their opposition is rooted in their contention that allowing broadband providers access to their infrastructure will carry great costs and increase energy prices for their consumers. Public power providers are also concerned that the changes proposed by the bill would bring them under the regulatory jurisdiction of the FCC.
The opponents’ positions are suspect, but without getting into the industry specific debate, it is important to understand why increased broadband deployment is so critical. The Internet serves as a conduit through which people can share information and engage in commerce. Numerous academic studies have drilled into the different economic and societal impacts of broadband access, in the aggregate, a few conclusions are abundantly clear:
Broadband access increases economic activity
Communities with broadband access have realized employment growth, business establishment increases, and payroll growth. Additionally, broadband access facilitates more informed purchase decisions, and reduces health care costs.
Broadband access improves education
The Internet serves as the primary research tool for high school students. The primary use of library computers is homework; this is especially true in areas below the federal poverty line. In rural and impoverished areas where students don’t have access to advanced courses, a majority of states now provide virtual access to these resources online. Finally, as college prices continue to increase, online education remains a cost-effective option for those with broadband access.
Broadband access is good for the environment
Increased broadband access makes telecommuting a viable option for more businesses and their employees, taking cars off the roads (and providing new employment opportunities). Similarly, E-Commerce has reduced traffic and made reading and information sharing more resource and energy efficient.
Broadband access increases access to information and services
Internet users are far more likely than their Internet-free counterparts to engage their community, contact their government, and take advantage of government assistance programs and other government resources. Internet also increases access to professional service providers, like lawyers, doctors, and financial experts.
Despite all of these benefits, 50 million American currently lack broadband access. Worse, is that many of these people live in rural or impoverished areas that lack other avenues by which to obtain access to these services.
This means that areas of high poverty are missing yet another opportunity for job creation and economic growth. Areas with smaller or poorer populations are unable to provide their students with similar levels of access to information and advanced materials as their peers. And, those most in need of government and community services and assistance are the same people who are less likely to know about them or have access to them.
As the global economy becomes more interconnected, and technological advances have created new opportunities where other opportunities have begun to disappear, it is critically important that no one is left behind. Stronger local economies, better education for all, a healthier environment, and increased community engagement benefits all Americans.