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Broadband Inches Toward Utility Status

A recent report released by the president's Broadband Opportunity Council made recommendations that would reduce the nation's digital divide.

Broadband is becoming a utility one step at a time. A White House report released last month declared broadband a necessity for Americans and recommended four actions for the federal government to execute in the next 18 months.

The 40-page report (PDF) was based on five months of research conducted by the Broadband Opportunity Council (BOC), which is chaired by the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) and U.S. Department of Commerce. It recommended that the government:

  1. Modernize federal programs valued at approximately $10 billion to include broadband as an eligible program expenditure, such as the USDA's Community Facilities (CF) program, which will help communities across the country bring broadband to health clinics and recreation centers.
  2. Create an online inventory of data on federal assets, such as Department of the Interior (DOI) telecommunications towers, that can help support faster and more economical broadband deployments to remote areas of the country.
  3. Streamline the applications for programs and broadband permitting processes to support broadband deployment and foster competition.
  4. Create a portal for information on federal broadband funding and loan programs to help communities easily identify resources as they seek to expand access to broadband.
The report also outlined challenges the nation will face in bringing broadband to a greater number of Americans. The digital divide, the separation between those who have broadband at home and those who do not, was cited as a chief concern compounded by demographic factors like age, disability, education and income. In 2012, a National Telecommunications & Information Administration (NTIA) report found that 29 percent of those without a connection cited expense as the reason. Much of the nation's infrastructure has been established, the report states, but reaching low-income and rural communities remains one of the final challenges.

"Digital divide" emerged from obscurity during the course of the last few years. In March, President Obama's creation of the BOC generated structure around a goal that more organizations than ever are currently working toward. The Institute for Local Self-Reliance, Next Century Cities, the Intelligent Community Forum, the Coalition for Local Internet Choice, the National Association of State Technology Directors, and the Fiber to the Home Council are just a few of those advocating for putting all of America online.

On Sept. 28, Next Century Cities will co-host with the NTIA a conference called Digital New England in Portland, Maine, to discuss the BOC findings outlined in the report with panelists and a live audience. NCC Executive Director Deb Socia wrote in an email to Government Technology that the report's recommendations are an excellent step in the right direction.

"We believe it is helpful to see the modernization of many federal programs so that investment in broadband infrastructure is possible," Socia said. "In addition, making federal assets more accessible could impact the cost of future projects, particularly in rural areas. We are aware that for many meaningful changes, Congress needs to act. In the meantime, these are positive steps."

Policy and rhetoric are a starting point, but translating a report into an Internet connection for a person to use requires more. A report like this, however, raises awareness of the relevant issues, identifies obstacles and outlines potential solutions, Socia said.

"We are hopeful that the recommendations will make it possible for our member cities to more successfully ensure that their communities have access to fast, affordable, reliable broadband," she said. "At the same time, we recognize that change does not happen quickly, so we anticipate it will be a while before we feel the impact of these recommendations."

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