Eight ideas for spending America's $100bn broadband windfall
Rather than just create more broadband, America has a chance to genuinely address its growing digital divide. This will require a systemic, collaborative approach not just siloed state programs.
The message of this site is that economies and communities go hand-in-hand, and that’s particularly true when discussing local infrastructure. America’s infrastructure is, to put it mildly, in need of some TLC. The country ranks 13th in the world, according to the WEF and invests just 0.5% of GDP in infrastructure a year, compared to 5.5% in China, 1.7% in Australia, 0.9% in UK and 0.7% in Germany. 42% of America’s 600k bridges are over 50 years old and 7.5% of them are structurally deficient. The country has broadband speeds that are slower and more expensive than Europe and Japan. The urban / rural divide persists; according to Pew Research, in 2021 adoption of broadband in suburban, urban and rural areas was 79%, 77% and 72% respectively.
The good news is that a cool $100bn has now been made available by Congress (with the majority via the $65bn Bipartisan Infrastructure Law (BIL)) to deliver high speed broadband to everyone. McKinsey just put out a report about this attention-grabbing number, noting:
Federal broadband funding through BIL marks one of the largest public investments in connectivity since the creation of the Interstate Highway System in 1956.
The report suggests a set of actions for States, which are:
Set up a well-funded broadband office
Baseline the current state of broadband service and federal programming
Outline strategic goals and an integrated plan for using federal funds
Develop the location level map and key cost models
Create detailed action plans for BIL programs
Design and implement competitive grant programs
Create a project delivery function to ensure goals are met efficiently
Engage communities and other stakeholders
Establish a robust program performance management system
These feel like necessary steps from the perspective of a state, especially when things are fixed and not moving, like roads. But there’s considerable flexibility in what constitutes ‘connectivity’, and this runs the risk of missing the forest for the trees - the point here surely is to reduce the experience of the digital divide, not just provide tech connectivity that may or may not be used. How do we maximise America’s broadband adoption and have society actually take advantage of it? Here’s a set of topics, some easier to implement than others, that may help move the needle:
Create a shared vision of success. The way the law is written leaves most of the implementation work to the States - developing and implementing five year plans is basically up to them. Unfortunately, only 26 of them have broadband offices, so expect a jumble of different visions and plans. A common vision around what “reliable, high speed internet” means would be a bonus.
Make it easier for broadband to be a locally-owned utility. The language of the bill positions broadband as a right not a privilege: “access to affordable, reliable, high-speed broadband is essential to full participation in modern life in the United States”. There are howls of protests from the lobbyists of the status quo providers (see next bullet) who are naturally pushing back against municipal broadband; 18 states make it illegal or very difficult to have municipal broadband at all. The only US city that offers affordable, high speed broadband (according to this New America report) is a locally-owned utility in Ammon, Idaho. It owns the infrastructure and allows services providers access to it, so they then compete for consumers’ business, but don’t dig (or own) the holes in the road.
Break the oligopoly. Related to the point above, just four companies - AT&T, Verizon, Comcast and Charter provide all the broadband in the country, and often have complex and non-transparent pricing, exclusive relationships and poor customer satisfaction. The Big 4 stand to be the beneficiaries of the $30 per month subsidy to every adult under the proposed policy, making it as much a taxpayer-paid windfall bonus to these corporations.
Focus on applications not just speed. I interviewed Angela Siefer from the National Digital Inclusion Alliance (NDIA) last year for our report with Nomura Research on the Digital Divide, and it was fascinating to learn that people are measuring the wrong thing: they’re measuring availability when they should be measuring adoption for example. What gets measured gets managed has its downsides.
Create new standards and metrics for success. That calls for a whole new set of research about who uses what and why and a whole new set of taxonomies for success. How about integrating the use of broadband into successfully using telemedicine for example? Or training caregivers remotely? What training is there that ensures people (in particular older people where I’ve been focusing) have the skills and can benefit, and what measures can we faithfully track? Tom Kamber with OATS / AARP has been doing some great things in this area. If at the end of the funding period they’ve spent $100bn and have got fast access but little sustained uptake or new impact, then what good will it be?
Build in the gaps. Use geospatial data to find dead zones and build programs there. In the UK, an inspiring new startup, Tribe, is using geospatial data from its smart city activities to identify ‘care dark spots’ with few if any care options available for people, and then build solutions to fill in the gaps. Such a joined up solution that spots problems and then addresses them could work here too.
Create a user-driven, shareable insights database. Co-develop ideas with the most vulnerable - in particular, older people, those with disabilities, those with the fewest means - and record and document them in a national insights database, so all the states don’t need to reinvent the wheel.
Extend to other areas of the digital divide. As per (3) above, a narrow definition of access to broadband doesn’t really address the “jobs to be done” here; lack of broadband is part of a bigger issue about inequality of access and outcomes and more broadly, an economic system that is exacerbating these inequalities. Such language would probably upset the delicate bipartisan balancing act that delivered this bill, but there’s more that could be done around ensuring other parts of the digital divide that we looked at (e.g. in access to financial services, rural locations and government services) or even stat to look at tech aspects of the digital divide around access to health and social care (free tech and services)
Build a ‘collective intelligence’ platform to share best practices. Build a collaborative platform that allows a cross section of public, private and academic collaborators to work together, maintain profiles of their wok, develop shared working groups and refine, build on and iterate the insights to reduce ‘time-to-insight’. The primary focus is national but would also explore international best practices, as there are lessons to be learned globally. Then lessons learned in one state - what to do and what not to do - are carried forward and built on in other states. This would bring together a group of mission-aligned stakeholders at the national level together with forward-thinking states that wanted to drive innovation in this area (am looking at you Massachusetts, California and Kentucky). Ad / self-serving disclosure: this is basically what The Collective does.
This infrastructure opportunity is novel due to its size and also because there’s no playbook about what to do. In a best case scenario there would be multiple parallel siloed approaches, in a worse-case one, $100bn buys very little and there’s graft and corruption. There is however chance for the articulation of a bold, clear goal which makes broad-based collaboration easier. I look forward to America taking this opportunity to not define its broadband challenge more broadly as an urgent digital divide, and to develop and share global leadership on the topic.