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Universal Broadband: Whose Responsibility Is It?

Our 10 government, industry and nonprofit representatives answer who they think should be responsible for ensuring that every American has access to broadband Internet.

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 one of our series, 10 representatives answer the question: Whose responsibility is it to ensure that every American has access to broadband Internet?

Joanne Hovis: This is a national responsibility. As a nation, in 1934, we decided through the Communications Act that all Americans should have access to a basic level of telecommunications service because it was critical to function and thrive. And the same is true in 2015 with respect to advanced broadband. For this reason, this is a responsibility that is held by all players and should be achievable given the extraordinary amount of support provided to commercial carriers through the federal Universal Service Fund.

Doug Brake: It’s ultimately the government’s responsibility to ensure that there’s fair, equitable availability of broadband to the entire country. That being said, it’s clear that the private sector plays a predominant role in providing broadband in our country. So I think the private sector and the government should work together to find ways in which we can make sure that everyone is getting affordable broadband.

John Jones: In today’s environment, it’s a collective effort, depending on the market. In many cases, the incumbent broadband provider may only have 30 percent of a market that they don’t serve, mainly due to regulation. On the other hand, you have some extremely rural markets. That to me is a different conversation because then you start talking about constructive and efficient ways to get broadband there that benefits the greater good. It is market-driven first. Some communities know what they want, and they have a business plan,  goal and objective for where they want to go with it. We have much more constructive conversations with those communities. Others just say “we have to have a gig” but they don’t really know what that means.

Chris Mitchell: Government, specifically local government. As this is an infrastructure, infrastructures are historically either heavily regulated or owned by the public directly. In the current climate, I think the best results are when the public owns broadband infrastructure and has some level of direct control over it.

Ric Lumbard: In Iowa, we break everything up by six sectors: government, education, public safety, health care, residential and business. Private sector takes the lead in residential and business. We try to find ways to partner with them in those endeavors. We view the Iowa Communications Network as the primary provider in government, education, public safety and health care. We drive that and then we contract with the private sector to help us with that. I don’t think the public sector needs to be the driver in residential broadband.

Bernie O’Donnell: I think ensuring equity in broadband is where government at all levels can perform a vital role. Government’s role is to create the environment that fosters innovation and progressive service offerings and accessibility to all citizens and businesses. Technology use has moved from supporting entertainment services to more of a required basic means of communication. Access to high-speed networking certainly has a dramatic impact on education and economic development. Citizen engagement in government activities and having that reliable broadband infrastructure is just as important for business as is a safe and reliable transportation system.

Miguel Gamiño: I think it’s a collective responsibility. The private sector certainly plays a role, because it has a large existing customer base, as well as extensive knowledge, experience and capacity. The public side of things has a responsibility to make sure that what happens going forward strongly represents the equity priorities of the community and that we make sure that voices are heard in an equitable and fair manner and that the outcomes are good for the full constituency.

Michael Mattmiller: It’s a joint effort. There has to be a partnership. Within government, we can identify the need and convene, but we recognize that we don’t have all of the expertise or resources to build out Internet at scale. So we need private interests, we need community members and we need the convening power of government.

Heather Burnett Gold: It’s everyone’s responsibility and that starts with the federal government implementing rules that make it easier for new entrants to have access, rationalize pole attachment rules and ensure that federal rights of way are open. I think it’s a state responsibility to ensure they don’t have any laws that inhibit fiber deployment or that prevent creative entry mechanisms, and that could be the community itself. It’s a community responsibility to ensure they’re not looking to broadband deployment as a goose that lays a golden egg, and that they’re seeing this is an investment they need to make in their citizens.

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