Let’s Make Internet Access Affordable And Accessible for Everyone

At the Broadband Communities economic development conference in October, FCC Commissioner Geoffrey Starks delivered a powerful call to make internet inequality across the United States a thing of the past. A data-driven review of what has and hasn’t worked over the past 10 years will help determine the path forward, he says.

My No. 1 priority at the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) is to reduce internet inequality – so much so that it was even the topic of my first speech as an FCC commissioner. I am passionate about working tirelessly to resolve this issue because I see up close how the lack of access to broadband impacts individual dignity, the economy and U.S. democracy.

Geoffrey Starks
 
 

I’m going to assume that when most of us woke up this morning, we probably reached for our phones. After we scrolled through our friends’ pictures of their children, we did something that really made a difference in our day. Many of us used our devices to check the news so we can be a part of an informed electorate in our town’s local elections. Some of us emailed our child’s teacher about a concern with a recent test score. And some of us requested refills online through specialty pharmacies for disease-modifying medications. Many of us did these things without thinking twice because the internet is so much a part of every aspect of daily life, and we expect it to be there. We expect it to be reliable. We expect it to be fast.

However, this expectation is not the reality for millions of Americans. And I can speak to that because over the last nine months, I have traveled across this country from pueblos in New Mexico to shelters for homeless people in San Francisco to learn about how the lack of access to broadband impacts communities across this nation.

What I have seen has been nothing short of alarming.

People throughout this country are pulling up to their town’s public library to get help building a resume or to apply for jobs online. I know about families on month-long waiting lists to check out Wi-Fi hotspots for their homes. And I hear about farmers who drive long distances and sit at the top of a hill to get an internet connection so they can download and upload crop information.

This is concerning because the internet has the potential to be an equalizer in this country. Unfortunately, the communities that feel the effects of poverty, isolation and lack of opportunities are the same communities left behind in the digital age. We know that access is essential, and we cannot fail these vulnerable communities.

Assessing earlier programs

One thing we must remember is that robust data and sound policymaking are interconnected. As you know, the FCC just proposed $20.4 billion toward the 10-year Rural Digital Opportunity Fund (RDOF).

Let me tell you, as a son of Kansas, I’m all about making sure we have the resources needed to adequately address connectivity in rural communities. The issue I take with this proposal is that we do not yet have reliable data to tell us where broadband exists and where it does not.

We need to better understand how the High Cost Program (HCP)/Connect America Fund (CAF) has performed historically so we can better tailor the performance of the RDOF for the next 10 years. Sometimes you have to look back to understand how best to move forward.

That’s why I’m calling for the FCC to conduct a data-driven, 10-year look-back on how our program has effectively performed in bringing broadband to remote areas. Where have we succeeded? Where did we miss? With our programming, which communities met their connectivity needs in the way we expected? Which didn’t, and why? Are there areas in which we provided HCP/CAF funding but are still behind in connectivity needs? If so, why?

I want to be crystal clear – this study is not at all an attempt to undermine the program or change it in some fundamental way. I want to understand where we have been most successful so we can improve this program. We’ve had a buildout program for years. The data is available for study so we can help communities in need. Most important, I don’t want to wake up in 10 years and find that the FCC does not have any better understanding of how and why significant numbers of communities are left out of the digital world.

I think that plans for the future of Universal Service need to start from a foundation of accurate data and maps and build from there. Unfortunately, that accuracy cannot be seen in the Form 477 data that the commission collects. In fact, earlier this year it was discovered that BarrierFree had a 62-million-person error in its data reporting. Yet this is the data that we rely on to roll out $16 billion out of the $20 billion set aside for the RDOF.

You know what I do trust? I trust the conversations I have with individuals and groups who email my office, visit me at the commission and meet with me when I’m on the road to tell their stories about how the lack of broadband access impacts their communities. And folks, they have looked at the maps, know there are discrepancies, and they want us to fix them.

Making Broadband Affordable

I want to be clear about what I mean when I say “internet inequality.” Simply deploying broadband is not good enough. We need to ensure that broadband access is affordable as well. This brings me to Lifeline.

There are people in this country who struggle to put food on the table, to put their kids through school, and to care for ailing relatives. The least we can do as a country is ensure that these individuals have access to voice and broadband services that allow them to fully participate in a 21st-century society.

We must do everything we can to protect the Lifeline program, and we must ensure that people who are eligible to participate are signed up for this program. I’ve visited a number of shelters for homeless people during my time as a commissioner. At each shelter, I’ve met with people who are Lifeline subscribers or are eligible for Lifeline. They have told me about how important it is for them to have access to a phone because that is what is needed when seeking employment, making a doctor’s appointment or even staying connected to loved ones.

Shelters should be places where folks receive food, warmth and clothing. I also believe they should receive information about Lifeline so they know there is a program that can help them stay connected. Every time I meet with leadership and staff at these shelters, I make sure they are aware of the program and how it can help their visitors get back on their feet.

As a former FCC enforcement bureau official, when I hear the language of waste, fraud and abuse as it relates to Lifeline, I can’t help but agree that we need to protect the integrity of this program. I also know we need to make sure we do a better job of first giving people who are most in need straps on their boots before we demand that they pull themselves up by their bootstraps.

I want to note that through all this darkness, there is some light out there, and I see that in the leadership in towns across this country. A few weeks ago, I met Debbie Saunders, the library director in Gallipolis, Ohio. As I find in many small towns, the public library there is abuzz with vibrant energy. If the library is a hub of the town, then Debbie is a shining star. She is excited and innovative and works so hard to make sure her community has everything it needs to succeed. Debbie started a Wi-Fi hotspot lending program at her library that has a six-week waiting period. Six weeks! Can you imagine waiting six weeks to use the internet at home? I can’t imagine going six minutes without access to the internet. My staffers can speak to that because the only time I’m not connected is when the plane is taking off and the flight crew hasn’t yet turned on the Wi-Fi.

I want ubiquitous connectivity to be the reality of everyone across this country. My goal is to make internet inequality a thing of the past that exists only in my daughter’s college textbooks. It’s not going to be easy. In an episode of “Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee,” Jerry Seinfeld asked President Obama what sport is most like politics. President Obama says it’s most like football because there are lots of players, a lot of specialization, and lots of attrition: you get one yard, you get sacked, you get three yards, and then it’s third and 15. But every once in a while, you’ll see a hole and there’s open field.

Right now, I see an open field, and I want us, as a nation, to score a game-winning touchdown in this battle to defeat internet inequality.

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