Industry Voices — Entner: How to connect, and keep connected, every U.S. citizen

Analyst Roger Entner lays out a plan for connecting every citizen across the U.S. (Pixabay)

Earlier this month, AT&T CEO John Stankey had an op-ed in Politico outlining his views on how to connect every American to broadband. The proposal focuses on four points: 1) Improved mapping 2) Improved Lifeline 3) Congressional broadband stimulus and 4) a sustainable funding mechanism.

The significance of the op-ed is not only what Mr. Stankey said as the four points have been well established before, but that he basically commits AT&T to leading the charge to make this happen. This made me ask, what would it take to turn AT&T’s four points into reality for the entire country?

The biggest problem estimating the cost of all of these programs is to determine the cut off point for universal coverage as the cost to analyze and the actually cover goes up exponentially. A good example of this reality is that we still do not have 100% of the country connected to the electric power grid. Another example is the fact that more than half of all new houses built in New England do not have access to the public sewer system. But let’s get back to broadband, which everyone has decided is more important in the U.S. than electricity or a well-functioning toilet.

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The COVID-19 pandemic confirmed that the U.S. broadband companies lived up to their boasting about having the best and most resilient broadband networks in the world; however, the pandemic also revealed in stark relief, exactly how disenfranchised people are without broadband access or devices. In reaction to this reality, politicians and industry leaders alike have proffered multiple ideas for closing “the homework gap." But let’s first start with understanding what will be needed to reach this objective.

First, the United States needs a better inventory of who and what is covered by the different flavors of broadband across the country. The current system that declares that if one household in a census block is covered then everyone is covered and this is clearly non-sensical. The largest census block in the U.S. is 8,500 square miles large. Based on press coverage, it appears both the FCC and the Hill agree with the industry that first and foremost the FCC needs funding to do an accurate and comprehensive map of who has what broadband where. Further, it is critical to make sure that all forms of broadband are identified and at what speeds, ensuring the regulators are sensitive to the fact that different broadband technologies work better than others in different circumstances and geography. Creating the database of correct mapping information is not impossible or monumentally expensive. Congress should make this happen sooner rather than later.

Next, is determining the amount of subsidy to the consumer for their broadband service and devices. Currently, Lifeline pays $9.25 per month to service providers for wireless or internet access and up to $34.25 on native and tribal lands. A peculiarity in how native and tribal lands are defined is that it significantly extends beyond reservations. As it is shown on the map below, significant portions of the United States are considered tribal lands, including the majority of the land in Oklahoma and therefore eligible for the higher disbursement. As a high water mark, if we assume that all estimated 15 to 18 million households without access to broadband would be eligible for Lifeline broadband and at a 75/20 mix between non-tribal and tribal lands, we can expect an increase in Lifeline by about $3 billion per year.

The Congressional broadband stimulus-funding requirement should be in the $80 billion ballpark of the House Democrats if it is being approached in a technology neutral way of allowing all technologies—fixed, mobile, and satellite—to be eligible to serve an unconnected household. The more Congress favors a fixed solution or even specifies a certain technology cost will quickly escalate. The more rural an unconnected household is the more expensive a fixed solution becomes at somewhere between $20,000 per fiber mile attached to a telephone pole to $120,000 per mile of trenched fiber mile. At the same time, the more remote a location is the more attractive satellite becomes, but it has the worst performance, especially in latency of the three technologies. Wireless technologies shine where it is too expensive to serve with a fixed connection, but not locations that are completely isolated. The best approach would be what the FCC is currently proposing to do – run an auction like the Rural Digital Opportunity Fund (RDOF) auction which bidders can receive higher subsidies if they agree to deploy a higher speed.

In sum, with a one-time infusion of $80 billion from Congress, and roughly $10 billion every year, we can connect—and keep connected—every American with broadband, either through a fixed, wireless or satellite connection. It is a worthwhile goal that will improve the lives of Americans, help educate our children and maybe some adults, and provide a direct connection to current and prospective employers ranging from applications to remote work. Furthermore, it will slow down the migration of Americans from rural to urban locations as we showed in our Broadband 2020 survey, where almost a third of respondents said they would not move to a place without broadband internet access.

Roger Entner is the founder and analyst at Recon Analytics. He received an honorary doctor of science degree from Heriot-Watt University. Recon Analytics specializes in fact-based research and the analysis of disparate data sources to provide unprecedented insights into the world of telecommunications. Follow Roger on Twitter @rogerentner.

"Industry Voices" are opinion columns written by outside contributors—often industry experts or analysts—who are invited to the conversation by Fierce staff. They do not represent the opinions of Fierce.