By Jonathan Sallet
Sallet is a senior fellow at the Benton Institute for Broadband & Society. Previously, Sallet served as general counsel at the Federal Communications Commission and deputy assistant attorney general for Litigation, Antitrust Division, U.S. Department of Justice.
In the midst of the COVID-19 crisis, the General Assembly is considering Gov. Northam’s request to increase funding to bring better broadband to all Virginians. Such support is important, as students stay home and learn, adults stay home and work, and seniors stay home even as they visit their doctor.
Funding for broadband would be an important step — and a wake-up call to the federal government. With state and local governments leading the way on broadband internet access, the federal government should support them — not hamper them, which is what is happening.
Start with the Commonwealth: Gov. Northam seeks to increase the biennium budget of the Virginia Telecommunication Initiative (VATI) program to $85 million, more than double the funds that were available after the COVID-19 pandemic forced a cutback in state spending this spring.
That would be a smart move, even in a budget crisis. The COVID-19 crisis has made plain that broadband is an essential for people to participate in our democracy, society and economy.
Robust broadband is now a critical — perhaps the critical — mechanism by which people participate in society. To be in a home without sufficient broadband is to be not just quarantined, but socially and economically isolated.
And with millions and millions unemployed, including over 1.1 million Virginians who have filed for unemployment since mid-March, many Americans need to be online to look and apply for a new job.
Virginia’s broadband challenges are multifaceted. In rural areas, nearly a third of households have no access to broadband. More than 600,000 Virginians have only one wired service provider, leaving them with no option to switch if they are dissatisfied with their service. In urban communities where broadband is available, it may not be affordable. The census tracts with the lowest broadband adoption rates in the Commonwealth are not in rural Virginia, but in Richmond.
The new funding would support a stronger VATI program. Just this year, that grant program was improved by prioritizing networks that are willing to serve everyone in a location, including less densely-populated neighborhoods. And more parts of Virginia are now eligible for grants.
But the federal government, particularly the Federal Communications Commission, seems to want to put the brakes on state efforts. Later this year, the FCC will award more than $16 billion to deploy broadband in unserved rural areas through its Rural Digital Opportunity Fund. But the FCC inexplicably — and wrongly — curbed the ability of applicants to use both federal and state funds to maximum effect to build the best networks. As Commissioner Geoffrey Starks explained, the FCC’s stance serves to “discourage badly needed state-federal partnerships [and] risk unequal application of the rules between states.”
The irony is that federal support for state and local broadband efforts is now critical. The federal government has the capacity to spend money while state and local governments are facing sometimes severe budget constraints.
The best approach is to fuse federal support with state and local leadership.
The reasons are obvious. State and local governments can experiment with pragmatic solutions that solve the whole broadband problem—from building networks to ensuring that people, like the newly-unemployed, have the resources and skills to use broadband. State and local governments can also provide benefits without requiring navigation through pages and pages of complicated requirements as federal programs currently do.
Perhaps most importantly, state and local governments are nearby, not thousands of miles away, and they hear the voices of local communities.
The magnitude of the challenge requires that all the players — federal, state and local — take the field.
The sooner we start to build a comprehensive broadband agenda, informed by state and local leadership and innovation, the sooner we will reap the benefits that will come when every person can use a robust internet connection at home.
For example, Rep. James Clyburn (D-SC), along with Rep. Abigail Spanberger (D-VA) and more than 30 other cosponsors, introduced the “Accessible, Affordable Internet for All Act,” which includes funding for state broadband grants (like Virginia’s), grants to encourage state digital-equity efforts, support for local broadband efforts, and additional funds to connect local schools, libraries and community institutions.