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Study sizes up cost and performance options for bridging the broadband gap

ACA Connects, a pressure group focused on smaller, independent cable operators, and consulting firm Cartesian have put forth a study that, they believe, provides a framework for policymakers who are tasked with bridging the nation's broadband gap.

Among the study's high-level findings, it found that it would cost in the range of $61 billion to $118 billion to bring 1 Gbit/s service to US locations that today get less than 100 Mbit/s down and 20 Mbit/s upstream that were not tied into phase I of the Rural Digital Opportunity Fund (RDOF). And, to accelerate broadband adoption, those costs also factor in $50 monthly subsidies for up to half of the 33 million Lifeline-eligible US households over a five-year period.

The study, which analyzes the latest FCC deployment data (June 2020) along with estimates for locations in partially served census blocks and business and anchor institutions, also took aim at other types of more ambitious broadband-related goals, estimating that the building of "future-proof" networks to all locations that get less than 100/100 Mbit/s today would cost about $106 billion to $179 billion.

That range would exceed the $100 billion that President Biden has proposed for the broadband piece of his broader infrastructure plan. The broadband component of Biden's plan also affixes a "future-proof" label, but rather than focusing on 1-Gig speeds, as some industry watchers had anticipated, the administration has set its sights on speeds of at least 100 Mbit/s down and 20 Mbit/s upstream, generally, along with lower baseline speeds of 25/3 Mbit/s in certain "unserved" areas.

The ACA Connects/Cartesian study – "Addressing Gaps in Broadband Infrastructure Availability and Service Adoption: A Cost Estimation & Prioritization Framework" – also attempts to shine more light on the combination of availability and affordability that are challenging widespread broadband access. It found that about 12 million US households, including 8.2 million in partially served Census blocks not previously accounted for in FCC data, do not have access to 25/3 Mbit/s broadband (currently the speeds the FCC uses to define "broadband"), and that about 30 million households do not subscribe to fixed broadband even when it's available.

To amplify that point, the study notes that income remains the largest barrier to adoption, regardless of geography. About 30 million, or about 25% of US households do not subscribe to a residential fixed broadband service for reasons other than network availability, with 36% of non-subscribing households earning less than $20,000 per year.

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Click here for a larger version of this image.

ACA Connects believes the report can serve as a guide as policymakers evaluate what can be achieved with various levels of funding and what it would take to achieve more ambitious proposals, such as establishing universal gigabit broadband service.

"America is poised to make a once-in-a-generation investment to close the broadband availability and adoption gaps, and it's critical that we bring the best, most current data and analysis to bear to get it right," Matt Polka, president and CEO of ACA Connects, said in a statement. "We look forward to sharing our findings with all government policymakers, industry sectors, consumer interests, and other stakeholders. It's a public resource for all stakeholders to use to help ensure the available funding is put to the best use."

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— Jeff Baumgartner, Senior Editor, Light Reading

A version of this story first appeared on Broadband World News.

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