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State, Local Gov Coalition Urges Fed Broadband Investment

Several of the most prominent membership organizations for state and local government leaders have united in support of an effort to urge federal decision-makers to invest in broadband infrastructure.

FCC headquarters
A coalition of some of the most prominent state and local government leadership associations has united to express support for Congress’ possible investment in nationwide broadband infrastructure.

The coalition’s membership is made up of the National Governors Association, the National Conference of State Legislatures, the Council of State Governments, the National League of Cities, the National Association of Counties, and the United States Conference of Mayors. They announced this effort Tuesday via a joint press release, which read, “we write to express our support as Congress considers efforts to expand federal investment in our nation’s broadband infrastructure. We hope that the federal government takes advantage of the opportunity to leverage the upcoming auction of the C-band spectrum for a large-scale expansion and upgrade of broadband across communities.”

That “upcoming auction of the C-band spectrum” is at the center of why this coalition has formed, and it is a complex matter that has to do with the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), which has been grappling with it for some time, deciding in November 2019 to take action this year. 

For the unfamiliar, the C-band spectrum is currently what satellite-based media companies use to beam radio and television signals to roughly 120 million households in the U.S. alone. That same spectrum is perhaps the most useful means of advancing 5G signals as well. The issue, however, is that there’s a finite amount of spectrum space to go around. The FCC is grappling with how to divide it up. 

In late February, the agency created new rules for how C-band spectrum space will be divided, potentially paving the way for the government to pay existing spectrum users to relocate their services to other means of distribution by 2025, subsequently holding a public auction for spectrum use that is projected to outweigh the earlier payments. 

What the coalition of state and local government leadership is urging is that Congress take action to steer an amount of money — which experts project to total in the billions — back into strengthening the nation’s broadband infrastructure, a challenge that has been famously difficult for rural areas for some time now. The FCC is divided on the issue, although the idea of using the money to support broadband infrastructure does have support from a dissenting group of FCC commissioners, one of which has offered suggestions along the lines of what the government groups are asking for. 

In the group’s release, they specifically note that the digital divide across the country is worsening as life is being lived increasingly online, with those who lack access to broadband as well as the funds and skills to use it missing out on employment, education and health-care opportunities. 

“Connectivity is essential to unleashing economic potential, promoting job growth, and ensuring small business participation in the digital economy,” the coalition wrote. “We need ubiquitous, affordable broadband to truly unlock the potential of new technologies for healthcare advancement and smart infrastructure.”

The group went on to describe this C-band spectrum auction as “a unique opportunity” to close the digital divide without any new financial burden on government, and in the midst of opportunity, they urged federal leaders to work closely with counterparts at the state and local level who “have a much more granular understanding” about what is needed and where to boost broadband infrastructure.

This is all part of a pair of interconnected trends at separate levels of government. Local leaders, mostly in the nation’s largest cities, have worked for some time to close connectivity gaps in their communities. State governments across the country are no stranger to this work either, but all indications are that their own digital equity efforts are undergoing a more aggressive acceleration as of late.

At the federal level, meanwhile, the U.S. House of Representatives held its first-ever hearing on digital equity in January, with advocates in the space, as well as state and local government leaders, delivering testimony to Congress.

This proliferation of various governmental leaders examining the issue is perhaps indicative of a philosophical shift that has seen access to the Internet transition from being viewed as a luxury to being increasingly treated as a utility that government takes an active role in facilitating access to for its residents. 

It remains to be seen, of course, whether Congress will take action related to the FCC’s forthcoming C-band spectrum auction.