By now, many of us are realizing we’ve been taking access to basic things for granted, such as social interaction, health care, on-site education, and…the Internet. While always valuable, the Internet is now a lifeline offering a fortunate few the ability to adapt and maintain a semblance of reality and connection to our employment, health services, and our family and friends. But those who don’t have access to fast, reliable broadband Internet are experiencing the pain of staying at home. Last year, an analysis by Microsoft indicated that 162.8 million Americans aren’t able to use the Internet at broadband speeds. That’s unacceptable, and while there are steps that communities continue to take to build their own networks, Congress needs to lead by taking steps to ensure that broadband access is available at an affordable price to all Americans.
While some cities and states have begun to relax orders, our return to normal life is still a long way off.
Congress took the first important step with the CARES Act, but it did not go far enough. The HEROES Act and the COVID-19 DISASTER in Indian Country Act are a more serious step toward addressing the connectivity needs of localities, and we applaud these Congressional actions. Now, it is time to move this critical legislation forward, and quickly, so that cities, towns, and tribal communities can begin healing from COVID-19 and building their digital economies in a time when our economic futures are uncertain.
These bills meet several goals for access-related policymaking, but there is still more work to do. Before these, or similar bills, are passed they should consider key provisions that will allow community members to benefit directly from their provisions, not just incumbent providers and major national corporations. To guide policymakers as they revise these and other emergency bills, the Internet Society has partnered with our community to create an updated version of our Indigenous Connectivity Summit Policy Recommendations. These recommendations can be used to ensure that Congressional members pass legislation that will empower and enable communities to get access to the Internet.
For example, in allocating funding for Internet access, Congress must ensure that communities across the country are able to utilize the money to deploy their own networks in under-connected areas using the resources currently available to them. These community networks – networks championed by the Internet Society and our partners, and built by communities to ensure their own connectivity – are a key part of the solution to the lack of ubiquitous broadband. Community networks also benefit consumers and entrepreneurs by providing worldwide connections and opportunities, thus leading toward greater socioeconomic growth.
For community networks to evolve from “emergency deployment” to “the new normal,” they need access to backhaul. Backhaul provides the essential first and middle mile of connectivity and is capable of being upgraded easily to keep up with increased demands over coming years.
As Congress considers the HEROES Act, COVID-19 DISASTER in Indian Country Act, and other related bills, policymakers should think about what can provide a solid return on investment for the country, which should include specific funding through grants and loans for community network fiber backhaul. If new roads are built, Congress should support policy encouraging the simultaneous deployment of fiber conduit along those routes, commonly referred to as Dig Once. In areas that will not see upgrades to their roads and highways, Congress should set aside adequate funds to separately build new, fully open access fiber-optic infrastructure to enhance the connectivity and resilience of those communities’ networks.
When allocating those funds through grants and loans, small, rural, Tribal, and community-owned networks should be prioritized. This will not only allow the funds to quickly enter local economies, but also allow networks to be designed and built to fit the needs of their communities. These smaller and locally-owned networks are better at empowering communities, providing training and skills to residents, and ensuring their financial resources stay within the area as opposed to being outsourced to major corporations with no local presence.
Any emergency legislation should also include additional funds for broadband access in anchor institutions, such as libraries, schools, and hospitals, as well as specific funding for training for community members so they can build and maintain this infrastructure themselves.
It is hard to see any silver lining in the tragedy that is COVID-19. But we will emerge from this, and when we do, I hope that our nation will have become more resilient and connected as a result. To do that, Congress must allocate additional funding for broadband Internet access to a full range of networks. Students, employees, doctors and many other community members know the new opportunities afforded by broadband access. Now, it’s up to Congress to make sure it provides important funding to enable a more connected future for all.
You can find the original Indigenous Connectivity Summit Policy Recommendations here and our updated Policy Recommendations in response to COVID-19 here.
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