The future of broadband and fiber as infrastructure

Since the 1970s, the idea that the telecommunications network would one day serve as an information superhighway has been part of our culture. Early telecommunication pioneers saw the potential and paved the way over the next 40-plus years to where we are now: at a point in our history when this superhighway will be available to all Americans.

According to the American Jobs Plan Fact Sheet, the bill "will bring affordable, reliable, high-speed broadband to every American, including the more than 35% of rural Americans who lack access to broadband at minimally acceptable speeds."

In August, the Senate passed what is now called the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act, legislation that is under discussion in Congress this week as the House of Representatives votes on its passage. Today, there is $65 billion allocated to broadband infrastructure spending as part of the bill with approximately $47 billion of the allocation dedicated to building networks. The key phrase that needs some consideration in the Fact Sheet language is "broadband at minimally acceptable speeds."

The challenge legislators face is how minimally accepted speed is calculated. If you look at how regulatory agencies view broadband today, it's framed as a technology-neutral decision. In reality, it is driven by special interest groups focused on protecting technologies that while useful in the past, are no longer capable of supporting the applications, services and compute requirements needed to support Americans at home, work or play.

Some pundits will tell you that a technology-neutral approach is key as it allows local and state governments to choose the infrastructure that is right for its own community. A 2020 study by RVA , conducted on behalf of the Fiber Broadband Association, found that "people with lower-performing broadband connections are rationing Internet use inside the home. Among users with the slowest bandwidth and highest latency, 49% reported actions such as asking other family members to curtail Internet use during work video conference calls."

Michael Render, president of RVA, LLC, a firm specializing in broadband research, recently stated "some assume second-tier broadband, with lower speed, lower reliability and higher latency, will suffice for the more rural areas of North America. Our market research, and the experiences highlighted in 2020, disqualify such thinking. Accompanied by population shifts to rural areas, rural citizens now need and demand the highest quality broadband available – which fiber quantifiably delivers best. An accelerated rollout seems crucial to the future of the US and Canada."

What technology neutrality does is perpetuate the reality that for rural Americans, minimally acceptable broadband speeds are good enough – keeping the digital divide intact. Once broadband speed requirements leap forward, as many industry analysts predict will happen as demand for telehealth, precision farming, smart home, 8k streaming and Artificial Intelligence-driven applications move into the mainstream, the divide will only grow wider. These technologies are just beginning to cross the chasm into mainstream use and when they do, legacy broadband technologies will leave residential users limited and frustrated.

Compressing the runways of these legacy infrastructure technologies further is the new normal paradigm of work from home, creating pressure on residential networks that were largely built to support voice calls and recreational usage. The virtual workforce is here to stay for many Americans, leading to more people moving outside of cities to more affordable, and often less connected, rural markets.

Congress would benefit from viewing the infrastructure challenge through the lens of its constituents instead of from the viewpoint of the technology companies that don't live in their state or hometown. Through this lens, why would any elected official vote for its communities to get "minimally accepted speeds" at a time when it can choose to invest in every single person's future?

The PEW Charitable Trust recently stated that the broadband component of the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act "represents a historic moment in national broadband policy; the size and scope of the proposed investment acknowledge the challenges at hand and how critical high-speed Internet access is to ensure America's economic future. The COVID-19 pandemic, which forced millions to work, attend school, and conduct much of their lives online, has driven home the fact that fast, reliable and affordable broadband is a key component of the nation's infrastructure."

The commentary is focused on the benefit that broadband as infrastructure serves in our lives today as shaped by the changes created by the pandemic. However, we're not building a broadband infrastructure for today. We're building it for the future, for the next generation of creative thinkers, engineers and companies that are often born in rural communities.

To give these innovators, inventors and visionaries a broadband infrastructure with no limits, it has to be supported by fiber. Fiber broadband has proven to have an immediate and long-lasting impact on communities, adding to local GDP, increasing home values and creating high-paying jobs. The reality is that with unlimited capacity, the possibilities are limitless. We now have the window to create an unprecedented level of opportunity for anyone with a computer and fiber broadband connection. Why would we choose anything less?

RVA's research, commissioned by the FBA and presented in the Fiber Broadband can Eliminate the North American Rural Digital Divide white paper indicated that in 2021 a household of four requires 131/73 Mbps of bandwidth that will grow to 2,141/2,044 Mbps by 2030. Given that the infrastructure funding is focused on created a network that will support that family in 2030 and beyond, fiber is the only pavement that should be used when building the next phase of the information superhighway in the US.

This week, as the House manages conflicting priorities and deadlines, the need to pass the infrastructure bill should transcend party politics and posturing as it benefits all Americans – those that desperately need the digital divide to close, and the rest of us that will benefit from their contributions once they can enter the globally connected marketplace.

— Gary Bolton, President and CEO, Fiber Broadband Association

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