Broadband Opportunity Council: Here’s How to Spread Broadband Access

In April, we wrote about the formation of the Broadband Opportunity Council, a new federal government organization designed to promote the spread of broadband access. Co-chaired by the secretaries of the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the U.S. Department of Commerce, the group is made up of elements from 25 federal agencies. It was given a deadline of 150 days to prepare a report on how to improve broadband quality and availability in the U.S. On August 20, the council turned in its homework early, three days before the due date, and briefed President Obama on its conclusions. On September 21, the council made that report public. What’s in the report? The council sorted its recommendations into four broad categories: 1.Update federal programs to support broadband. Adding broadband subsidies to the Federal Communications Commission’s (FCC) Lifeline program is a great example of this idea in practice. 2.Give communities an increased ability to attract and promote broadband. 3.Offer expanded access to federal resources, such as communications towers, for broadband use. 4.Advance our understanding of broadband through researching, collecting, and analyzing more data. Fortunately, the council’s report includes specific examples for each of the categories to help turn ideas into real-world action. In all there are 36 specific recommendations, including the following. Updating Federal Programs • The U.S. Department of Agriculture should fund broadband through the Rural Development Community Facility Program, by expanding the RUS Telecommunications Program to allow additional investment in communities without adequate broadband availability, and by making broadband network construction eligible for the Rural Business Guarantee Loan Program. • The Department of the Treasury should more clearly list broadband network construction projects eligible for federal tax credits. • The Department for Housing and Urban Development (HUD) should add broadband requirements for construction of new HUD-subsidized residences, and make broadband infrastructure eligible for funding via the Indian Community Block Grant Program and seven other community planning and housing programs. • The Department of Labor should make broadband access allowable as an administrative cost for career centers. • The Department of Health and Human Services should provide $25 million in grants to expand the use of broadband in health centers. Empowering Communities • All federal agencies should actively look for opportunities to promote broadband adoption and use, particularly on Indian reservations. • Participating agencies should create best practice guidelines and offer technical assistance to communities. • The National Telecommunications and Information Administration should build and maintain a single point of contact for obtaining broadband resources. • President Obama should expand a previous executive order, directing the Department of Transportation to promote “dig once” policies, to other federal agencies involved in infrastructure funding, and these agencies should all work together for this purpose. Making Federal Assets More Available • The Departments of Agriculture, Commerce, Energy, the Interior, and Transportation and the General Services Administration (GSA) should collaborate to develop an inventory of federal assets that could be used to expand broadband access. • The Department of the Interior should use assets, including the more than 4,000 telecommunications towers on Tribal Lands, to expand broadband access among the Native American population. Collecting and Analyzing Data • The Departments of Commerce, Homeland Security, and Health and Human Services, GSA, National Science Foundation (NSF), NTIA, and Institute of Museum and Library Services should create a research agenda for all areas of broadband innovation and expansion. • The Department of Education should compile existing data about broadband availability in schools and in students’ homes. • The NSF should request submissions for new technology to take advantage of expanded broadband access. Why We’re Encouraged It’s all too easy to provide recommendations on what needs to be done while not specifying who needs to do the actual work. Throughout the report, the council names the specific federal agencies it believes should support each action — and in many cases where the money should come from — making it clear who is responsible for what. There’s also a proposed timeline with specific deliverables for each stage of each proposal, beginning in the first quarter of 2016. If the report is approved in its entirety and goals aren’t met, passing the buck might not be impossible, but it will be difficult. What does this mean for you? The size of the proposed undertaking and the number of federal agencies involved means one thing: the federal government now takes the country’s traditionally mediocre ranking in Internet speed seriously and is willing to do something about it on a large scale. The majority of specific proposals make it look as if any future action will have the greatest impact on those who have the least access to high-speed Internet service. However, one reason for providing access to federal resources is to spur competition, so those who have only one option for broadband may see competition produce lower prices than are currently available. Realistically, it will be some time before any of us feel the effects of any of the Broadband Opportunity Council’s recommendations. If you want to improve the speed and quality of your Internet access starting now, enter your ZIP code below. [zipfinder]

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Will Smith is a copywriter living in Chattanooga, Tennessee. His favorite word is “petrichor,” and aside from wordplay, he loves reading history, watching Dodger baseball, and racing with the Sports Car Club of America.

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