Is Broadband Really “The New Dial-Tone?”

No question about it, broadband is infrastructure, and it gets compared to other types of vital infrastructure all the time in the course of the ongoing discussion about improving broadband speeds and coverage, including highways, plumbing and public water, electricity, and even telephone service.

This phenomenon was in full force last week when Maine got it’s first-ever (we think) visit from a sitting FCC Commissioner, newly re-appointed democrat Jessica Rosenworcel, who joined United States Senator Angus King and NTCA CEO Shirley Bloomfield for a broadband listening session at Unity College.  Roads and plumbing were both used by King to illustrate points about broadband service, but the most significant comparisons the panel made were to the government’s role in fostering Rural Electrification in the 1930’s and Universal Telephone Service in for much of the last century.

Rosenworcel-Broadband is the new dial-tone.

FCC Commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel, Senator Angus King and NTCA CEO Shirley Bloomfield at a Digital Divide Listening Session August 16th.

The parallels make sense, as innovations that broke at the dawn of the 20th Century; electricity and telephone service were transformative to American life and commerce. They introduced new comforts, and entertainment options to the American home, they brought people from far-flung communities closer together through electronic communication, and they made possible advances in manufacturing, agriculture and commerce that were truly revolutionary, and people saw the need to connect rural areas, even though the cost was higher. This is why universal wired communications is referenced in the Telecommunications Act of 1934 and why the Rural Electrification Administration was also created during the Roosevelt presidency.

As a major innovation at the turn of the 21st century, broadband Internet access does all these same things for a modern digital world, and there is a growing consensus that we should connect rural areas, even if it is more costly to connect people there.

The New Dial-Tone: Deeper Meanings

Abstract Digital network communication digital concept

Broadband is a global necessity.

What does it mean to compare telephone service to Internet access?  It was Commissioner Rosenworcel who said “Broadband is the new dial-tone” in the course of her remarks last week.  If you consider her role as a regulator, it’s likely she means a bit more than “it’s good for communications and commerce and we should connect everyone.” It means that she sees a bigger role for government in promoting and regulating broadband service.

  • Universal Service Funding: In her previous term, the commissioner helped modernize the Universal Service Fund into the Connect America Fund, and helped launch the CAF-II and ACAM broadband funding programs at the FCC. When we asked about some deficiencies in these plans, such as doughnut holes, Rosenworcel indicated her strong support for fully funding the program. We can expect the commissioner to continue this support in the current administration.
  • Measurement: If the government is to have a role in creating universal broadband service, we need better tools for measuring where broadband is and is not. Commissioner Rosenworcel commented on this during her remarks and it’s likely that we’ll see discussion of this at the FCC.
  • Promoting Competition: In response to questions about competition in rural markets where deployment costs were high. The commissioner noted that “The Telecommunications Act of 1996 rests on two poles: competition and universal service,” suggesting that there is a clear need under the law to balance the importance of connecting everyone with promoting competition.    
  • Net Neutrality: When she was an FCC Commissioner in Tom Wheeler’s FCC during the Obama Administration, Rosenworcel voted in favor of regulating Internet service under Title II of the telecommunications act of 1934. This would treat all ISP’s in a similar fashion to telephone carriers, and is an important element of establishing FCC authority to protect Net Neutrality, ensure fair pricing, and so on. While Ajit Pai’s FCC is likely to roll back Title II regulation of Internet service, we can expect Rosenworcel to continue her support for Net Neutrality.

Ms. Rosenworcel is but one of five commissioners with her term expiring in 2020. The President will likely have the opportunity to appoint or reappoint as many as 3 commissioners while he’s in the White House. Those appointments will determine whether Rosenworcel’s visions are realized or whether she’ll need to stick around for a changing of the guard in the Oval Office.   In the meantime, we can all hope that Congress takes up the charge to address broadband as it did with electricity and telephone in the 1930s.

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