Broadband Expanded to More Americans with Private Sector Investment

By: Noah Vehafric

As the COVID-19 pandemic continues into the new year, one of the lessons we can takeaway is how important having access to broadband is. Americans use broadband to work, see healthcare providers and students use it to learn – all from their home. Families and communities without broadband access are put at a significant disadvantage to access these opportunities. As some remain unconnected to broadband, the private-sector has stepped-up and spearheaded numerous efforts to connect these Americans. 

Private sector investment in broadband has been steadily increasing over the past 20 years. 2018 and 2019 had the highest levels of investment seen during this period, with 2020 expected to continue with that trend. 

Recently, Charter Communications announced a multiyear initiative to invest $5 billion dollars to expand broadband access to 1 million underserved customers. This $5 billion composes $3.8 billion of its own capital and $1.2 billion awarded from the FCC’s Rural Digital Opportunity Fund’s reverse auction.  

The reverse auction format – where providers sell back spectrum rights to the FCC according to their value – was an important part in allowing broadband providers to expand services to Americans. While these are public funds, the reverse-auction applies free market pressures to how that funding is acquired and used, making it as efficient as possible. Reverse auctions were made successful by eliminating the obsolete Eligible Telecommunications Carrier (ETC) requirement which restricted the amount of companies that could participate and increased the competition in the auctions. 

Charter’s goal is to give these rural areas 1 Gbps high-speed broadband, with no less than 200 Mpbs speeds to start. These are speeds sufficient enough to work from home, engage in remote learning, and attend telehealth visits. Charter has also announced that for the first phase of this program they will be hiring more than 2,000 employees and contractors to support the buildout of the associated infrastructure. 

Comcast is also working to expand broadband access for millions of Americans and support underserved students. This is the tenth year of Comcast’s Internet Essentials program, where it has connected over 8 million low-income Americans. The program has also provided laptops to students, and invested $700 million in digital literacy programs. 

In another effort to support students, 1,000 “Lift Zones” will be launched by the end of this year. A Lift Zone is a WiFi connected community center where students can go to complete school work.  

These are just a handful of initiatives that demonstrate the best vehicle to closing the digital divide is not municipal broadband but through free market innovation and philanthropy. Policies should be created that support the private-sector’s ability to continue these programs.

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