Consuelo Hernandez is the Governing Board President of the Sunnyside School District.
As a school board member, I have seen the effects of broadband over the last almost two years, the pandemic has highlighted a range of challenges that need to be addressed. Many problems still need to be fixed, but when it comes to broadband access and our students’ learning, policymakers in DC have displayed their understanding of how important closing the digital divide is with their recent passage of the bipartisan infrastructure framework. The law invests in initiatives to improve our nation’s infrastructure including $65 billion in federal funding that will be used to help low-income families afford broadband with a permanent benefit that goes to their internet bills, as well as an effort to expand broadband infrastructure across the country to the millions of Americans who still do not have access to high-speed internet. Overall, the newly passed law is the most significant investment in the country’s infrastructure in almost 70 years.
Countless Americans have operated remotely including our school districts and they continue to rely upon internet access to stay connected. Unfortunately, those without it fell behind, particularly our students. In rural areas, public wifi networks at restaurants and municipal buildings became a lifeline for teachers and students who had no reliable broadband access at home. The recent Omicron wave reflects that the virus is still very much with us, and the reality remains that millions of students still lack suitable internet access at home, which has fueled our nation’s troubling “homework gap.”
The infrastructure bill’s investment in broadband expansion offers great promise in resolving this problem and evening the playing field for all students, but outdated utility pole access rules threaten to delay fixing the issue.
Utility poles fuel our country’s communications infrastructure. Similar to how a water company would need access to a region’s water pipes to bring running water to homes, internet providers will require access to utility poles to provide homes with broadband. Internet providers typically do not own the poles so for any broadband expansion to begin, the pole owners and those doing the expansion must come to an agreement that allows internet providers to access the poles and attach their technology.
This procedure seems simple, but the rules in place make it so that it isn’t. Internet providers are prepared to pay their fair share to owners to cover the cost of access — which they are required to do. But sometimes disagreements arise over how the costs are split and without a clear framework in place to manage the disagreement, disputes can go on indefinitely all without expanding access to broadband.
The biggest losers in all of this are the communities that are unserved. While a few months or years of delay to connect an unserved community can mean everything when every day without broadband is a day you fall further behind. In the digital age that we find ourselves in, countless Americans rely upon the internet for almost every facet of daily life. The gap in educational outcomes between students with broadband and those that don’t have access are so well documented that the FCC Chair coined a term for it “the homework gap.” It’s clear we can’t let poles get in the way of fixing this inequity.
Unserved Americans need legislative action to modernize the pole processes and expedite broadband deployment. Congress can remove bureaucratic barriers that cause delays and work to increase transparency through consistent timelines for permits and access to poles.
The bipartisan infrastructure law was a major step in the right direction to connecting every American, but outdated pole rules threaten to hinder that progress by delaying deployment. We need faster, fairer standards for pole access so that unserved Americans can get online now. The nearly 14 million Americans that live in areas with no access can’t delay, and they know that Congress shouldn’t either.