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Broadband Barriers: What Is the Biggest Hurdle to Universal Access?

Our 10 government, industry and nonprofit representatives answer what they see as the biggest barrier that is impeding access to broadband.

Editor's note: Recently the FCC estimated that about half of the residents living in rural America can’t get the advanced broadband service that metropolitan areas take for granted. Some rural residents can't get any Internet connection at all. And even some city dwellers lack access: At Government Technology’s Los Angeles Digital Government Summit in August, CIO Ted Ross said that almost a third of the city does not have broadband Internet access.

But as broadband in the United States inches toward utility status, Government Technology asks representatives from government, industry and nonprofits why the broadband equity gap exists and how to fix it in our five-part series: The Need for Speed, which details who each of our representatives is.

In part two of our series, 10 representatives answer the question: What is the biggest barrier impeding broadband access?

John Jones: From a provider standpoint it’s going to be cost. Most markets we serve already have some form of broadband and it varies from 1.5 all the way up to a gigabit. So what’s left in our footprint anyway are the most uneconomical markets.

Chris Mitchell: State law might be the biggest barrier in some areas, but for the average community, it is intimidation. It’s a fear of going into competition or investing in competition against a rival that is much more powerful in the market. Local government officials are afraid of the incumbents undercutting public investments with predatory pricing and thereby making it appear that the public investment is a failure.
Doug Brake: It’s often issues around whether people think broadband is relevant to their lives. Cost is a factor to some degree. There have been some interesting studies showing that a surprising number of survey respondents say they’re not interested in taking a broadband product at any price, even if it was offered for free.
Michael Mattmiller: If I had to pick one, I’d say it’s capital. And by that I mean, here in Seattle, we would love to be in a position where we can provide consistent gigabit broadband to everyone, even if that meant building it ourselves. But it is an expensive proposition just to serve even a subsection of our community.
Heather Burnett Gold: The biggest challenge is getting this entire system to move in the same direction. In other words, there needs to be some sort of education campaign that says that everyone has a responsibility and has a role to play in making this investment available to all citizens.
Bernie O’Donnell: The biggest barrier to the end user is cost, whether to get the adequate bandwidth or to reach all the income levels, or to reach more rural or remote areas. The industry tends to bundle data transport with entertainment that’s riding the network. If we continue to look at broadband as a vehicle to deliver entertainment, like cable or consumer Internet, we’re missing the real opportunity in the value of the data. There’s a lot of duplication of infrastructure being put out by telecom companies, cable companies and even power companies. Duplicating each other’s efforts in putting in this infrastructure [is wasteful].
Robert Bell: When you interview the people who are not online, they tell you it costs too much, they don’t have the computer equipment or there’s nothing on there that interests them. The issue of relevance always interests me because, of course, how do you know there’s nothing relevant to you if you’ve never been online? But essentially what you’re talking about is people have to see this as fundamental to their lives. 
Miguel Gamiño: I think that the core infrastructure and how it’s organized, meaning there’s a lot of private-sector infrastructure and there’s a lot of public-sector infrastructure that exists. A model that helps us better coordinate those assets and also the public sector’s own investments in those infrastructures in the rights of way is not an obstacle or challenge, but a big work effort that really needs to happen to help drive the rest of the conversation.
Joanne Hovis: Because of the high capital costs necessary to build broadband networks, it is challenging to build a business case for rural broadband, and private-sector investment dollars tend to go to places where return on investment is greater, both in urban and rural markets. A handful of companies enjoy monopoly or duopoly status in those markets, and the benefits of new investment, competition and competitive pricing don’t emerge.
Ric Lumbard: Capitalization and partnership. Where does the capital sit to develop this? Should it come from grants? Should it come from federal programs or state programs? And where is this capitalization that happens in the course of doing business? And I think each area of the nation has demonstrated that it can be done multiple different ways.

Colin wrote for Government Technology and Emergency Management from 2010 through most of 2016.