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A Challenging Path from COVID Lockdowns to Universal Broadband

The silver lining to last year’s COVID pandemic is the true and sincere recognition of high-speed broadband as a universal necessity for modern society. Billions of dollars of funds from the Biden administration’s infrastructure spending package will flow into numerous efforts to build out high-speed internet access and increase affordability. In addition, states such as Virginia and West Virginia have made their own fiscal commitments to deliver universal high-speed broadband.

COVID restrictions on in-person work and education trigged numerous on-the-fly adjustments for businesses and local governments alike, with work-from-home and distance education the twin pillars of stress/need placed on organizations and the people they served. Work-From-Home rapidly evolved into Work-From-Anywhere, with bedroom communities and seasonal vacation spots transformed into year-round locations. Local school districts that treated neighborhood broadband access as a luxury were forced to step up and provide solutions to ensure students could attend virtual classroom sessions regardless of where they lived. And home networks needed to support both parents and students at the same time of day.

These two applications along with small to medium-sized businesses receiving a dose of “future shock” by accelerating adoption of e-commerce as a must-have tool, moved high-speed broadband into the category of necessary infrastructure in the minds of politicians and businesses. Fiber is the main platform for meeting current and future broadband requirements, even for wireless last-mile solutions.

Delivering the power of fiber broadband is the challenge ahead, especially in rural areas where the demand and need is greatest. There’s plenty of money kicking around between local, state, and national budgets, but securing that money for rural projects is only the beginning of challenges facing communities throughout the nation. The FCC has to update its data collections process and generate better broadband deployment maps. NTIA needs to be able to efficiently and effectively distribute over $42 billion to provide service to unserved locations.

Once the money arrives, local projects will need to get their hands on fiber and the skilled workforce necessary to install it. Rural communities may find themselves towards the back of the line for both resources as the cable industry ramps up its fiber deployments to support its near-term 10 Gig plans, not to mention deeper fiber deployments by the cellular industry to support 5G. It’s not only Verizon and AT&T, but Frontier and other regional carriers that are putting greater efforts into more fiber faster.

Believe it or not, these are good problems to have. More available money means more projects get funded and can move forward, making a significant impact on unserved and underserved areas and creating a “snowball effect” to ultimately provide fiber to all communities because of the social and economic benefits. Virginia and West Virginia are clear examples of state governments recognizing that high speed broadband needs to be available for everyone regardless of location, not just in major cities and the patchwork of local connectivity islands outside of them.

The road to universal fiber broadband is likely to be a bit bumpy over the next 24 months, but with billions of dollars in the pipeline and clear political will at the federal, state, and local level to deliver broadband to unserved and underserved regions, there’s the clear path to build it. It’s time for all of us to get to work on building the future today.