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The broadband internet — both cellular service and high-speed wireline — is indispensable to most Mainers’ lives and livelihoods during this pandemic. But for those on the wrong side of the digital divide — 180,000 Mainers, or 13 percent of our population — the pandemic underscores how spotty broadband and cellular coverage can have dire consequences.
For the most part, U.S. broadband is an incredible success story, but it’s not perfect. Almost $2 trillion in private investment has extended high-speed networks to 95 percent of Americans. But connecting the last 5 percent has proven a decades-long challenge.
Most of us on the front lines of expanding broadband and cellular service in rural areas believe the federal government can play a key role advancing the cause of universal connectivity and guaranteeing an open internet for consumers.
I speak from experience having helped deploy high-speed mobile and fixed-wireless broadband service across rural Maine, New Hampshire and Vermont, and in support of Maine’s FirstNet first responder network. If our goal is attracting even more investment to expand broadband’s reach into the most remote communities, regulations designed a century ago for railroad and telephone monopolies are not likely to succeed. And, most importantly, these utility rules are completely unnecessary to protect the open internet — Congress has plenty of other options.
For anyone studying broadband policy, it’s clear that federal initiatives to expand rural broadband haven’t yet gotten the job done; they need to be strengthened and reformed. Federal programs to extend connectivity into the most remote rural areas have been beset by waste — too much money has been diverted away from truly unserved areas to instead fund duplicative networks and subsidize providers in already-served areas.
Recently, the Federal Communications Commission approved $20 billion for rural broadband buildouts, and now Congress is considering more stimulus, including a potential $2 trillion infrastructure plan. These efforts can succeed where past efforts failed by ensuring that precious funds go to unserved communities and are not diverted to areas that already have broadband.
Congress can make these taxpayer dollars stretch even further by eliminating the arcane and counterproductive rules that bar some of the most experienced providers and smartest minds from participating in these programs. In the end, rural communities need everyone stepping up to help close broadband gaps as quickly as humanly possible.
And while Congress is taking a bipartisan swing at broadband policy, it should tackle net neutrality, too. Most broadband providers publicly support legislation to protect the open internet and have always lived by the principle of treating all traffic equally.
But 15 years of efforts to write net neutrality into law have failed, and a bill passed by the House last year arrived dead in the water in the Senate because it calls for reclassifying broadband under utility-style “common carrier” rules developed almost a century ago to regulate telephones and railroads. The Washington Post calls the idea “ toxic” because it kills any prospects of bipartisan support.
It’s not just that utility-style rules could choke small, independent broadband providers like mine with red tape and slow down our efforts to expand in rural areas. This approach also opens the door to more heavy-handed regulations — like Europe’s failed line-sharing experiment — that could scare off the investment dollars we urgently need to expand high-speed networks into every community nationwide.
We need to be smart. Connecting remote communities takes creativity, flexibility and a business model that can support the investment risks that these kinds of innovative solutions require. Unlike developing a vaccine for this pandemic, expanding rural broadband and protecting the open internet are goals we know how to achieve. We just need our federal leaders to call for political detente, work across party lines and get the job done. It’s the kind of moment for which our two senators were born.
Bob Parsloe is the president and CEO of Rising Tide Towers and Wireless Partners, which build and operate cellular-based communication networks in rural Maine, New Hampshire and Vermont.