Seldom has technology and connectivity felt more important than it has right now. The lockdowns in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic have forced many workplaces to become virtual, moved schools online, and prevented many from being able to gather together with friends and family outside of video conferencing apps. Any question of whether the internet is, in fact, a necessity has been wiped away by this virus.
Fortunately, during the tenure of Federal Communications Commission (FCC) Chairman Ajit Pai, the commission has sought ways to achieve coverage growth through free market innovation. This record includes some resounding successes. The commission has prioritized the liberation of spectrum for private use, even when unpopular with established players. It approved the T-Mobile/Sprint merger that promises to promote competition and innovation. And, of course, it repealed the Title II regulations, the biggest government incursion on the free and open internet in memory.
The latest in that trend is a proposal by the commission to establish a 5G fund for rural America. This fund would distribute $9 billion across the country to support 5G connectivity specifically targeting rural areas that would likely go unserved absent this added incentive. This is due to a range of factors including population density, geographical distance, and natural barriers. Because of these factors, many rural Americans lack the connectivity that they may need to provide for their families.
Broadband creates jobs. It is necessary if a neighborhood is to have any hope of attracting new investment. Broadband creates jobs and support services for the community.
In the midst of a pandemic, access to telehealth and telemedicine services is also paramount. This is especially true, considering a bipartisan coalition wants to make present expansions to telemedicine permanent. The same is true for access to education or resources that help these communities hold their elected officials accountable. There are any number of reasons why the “digital divide” hasn’t been seriously addressed until now — either way, it is still unacceptable.
Agreements made as part of the aforementioned T-Mobile/Sprint merger included the new entity promising to provide 5G service to 99 percent of the country within six years, including at least 90 percent of rural America. This will provide a great boon for our economy and likely spur innovations that we cannot fathom at this point in time. However, this fund is meant to target the other 10 percent that might otherwise get swept under the rug.
Another feature of the pandemic beyond the increased importance of connectivity is the profligate spending of the federal government. This is perhaps why the FCC’s proposal in this case is so refreshing. The aforementioned $9 billion is not new government spending. It is repurposed and redirected spending from an existing program. It is both more efficient and will not contribute to the lack of fiscal discipline plaguing the rest of Washington at the moment.
This is a retrofit of the FCC’s previous Mobility Fund II, which is no longer up to date with the latest technology. This previous fund is based on 4G LTE as the latest consumer technology. That is no longer the case and 5G technology promises speeds of up to 100 times that of 4G LTE. Updating the FCC’s focus to reflect new developments is not only prudent, but a common sense idea.
Sadly, the reality is that some areas of the country still don’t have access to 3G or 4G service yet. If we continue to operate under the status quo, rural America will remain lagging behind the rest of the country for years to come. There is no reason to dedicate billions of dollars and years of work to deliver outdated technology.
The FCC is considering multiple approaches and is seeking public comment on how best to identify and target areas of need. One is more aggressive, based on current data and the other is more granular, based on expected data that the FCC is compiling. As Mr. Pai said in his statement on the matter, there are advantages and disadvantages to both approaches. However, it is essential that it be addressed. With everything else going on in the world right now, this should be an encouragement for Americans, especially those in underserved areas.
• Dan Savickas is the Regulatory Policy Manager at FreedomWorks.
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