An Inclusive and Effective Approach to ‘Community-Based’ Broadband

SHIRLEY BLOOMFIELD and CLAUDE AIKEN

More than a year ago, many of us moved our lives almost entirely online as the COVID-19 pandemic forced office and school closures and stay-at-home orders. The pandemic has highlighted the critical nature of access to fast and affordable broadband internet service, and while there was momentum to expand rural broadband before the pandemic, the health crisis accelerated the urgency to connect as many people as possible.

That is why our organizations welcomed the announcement by President Joe Biden of a $2 trillion infrastructure proposal, which includes a significant investment to expand broadband access. As organizations representing thousands of small, community-based broadband providers delivering internet services through a variety of wired and wireless technologies, we believe that no infrastructure package would be complete without including digital infrastructure. But we also believe that making sure these proposed policies have the actual impact they intend.

We all know the phrase, “all politics is local,” and when it comes to broadband deployment, the same sentiment is often true, as programs that encourage and incentivize local partnerships and collaboration can unleash broadband investment and help sustain those networks once built. The best results are often achieved when operators with experience building networks and delivering communications services work together with community stakeholders to identify and respond to specific needs.

To truly unleash the power of localized broadband deployment, we should ensure all community-based providers have a seat at the table.

To be clear, Biden’s proposal captures some of these community-based providers — but not all. The plan would prioritize funding to municipally operated, cooperatively organized, or nonprofit providers, and we share a number of members who are organized this way. But corporate structure does not dictate the strength of commitment to closing the digital divide. We also count among our memberships family-owned companies, sole proprietorships, Tribal internet service providers and other community-based commercial businesses who are today delivering essential services across rural and small-town America.

As local providers who serve areas that they also call home, these providers’ commitment to their communities is second to none. They also set an example for the entire country by doing everything they could to meet their communities’ needs during this difficult and disruptive time. From “broadband in a box,” with technicians jumping through hoops to help with self-installation, to the speedy deployment of fixed wireless internet connectivity, to the posting of hot spots and rapid installation of fiber to help keep customers connected, their stories were inspiring for policymakers and the broader public. They have helped to keep us connected, productive and safe during these difficult times. It is hard to fathom what the crisis might have become without them.

While cooperatives and other entities may be a logical part of the conversation about connecting everyone in our country and building an economy that gives everybody a chance to succeed, we believe discussions also must include other kinds of small businesses based in the communities they serve.

In short, we believe any community-based provider with a proven track record of performance should be eligible for funding regardless of corporate form. Corporate structure should not matter if your heart and soul has been devoted to bringing essential connectivity to the hardest to reach and serve in America. Leveraging these small businesses will further ensure that our country’s investment in broadband will rapidly result in broadband for all.

We look forward to continuing our work with the White House and policymakers to ensure that providers of all kinds who are committed to their communities can work to realize and sustain a shared vision of broadband access for all.

Shirley Bloomfield is chief executive officer of NTCA–The Rural Broadband Association, which represents nearly 850 independent, community-based telecommunications companies across rural America.

Claude Aiken is president and chief executive officer of WISPA, which represents nearly 1000 independent, community-based broadband providers across rural America.

This opinion piece originally appeared in Morning Consult, April 22, 2021.