My Turn: New Hampshire’s digital divide

For the Monitor
Published: 1/2/2022 7:30:45 AM
Modified: 1/2/2022 7:30:06 AM

The digital divide is the defining issue of the 21st-century economy and COVID-19 has laid these differences bare.

In rural areas, there were too many library and fast-food parking lots flooded with cars containing teachers and students who had no reliable broadband access at home. While schools have reopened, the reality remains that millions of students still lack suitable internet access at home, which has fueled our nation’s troubling “homework gap.”

With the passage of the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act, Congress has given broadband infrastructure the funding it needs. Now we need to make sure that infrastructure is built expediently. While broadband expansion offers great promise in resolving disparity in service, significant barriers still exist in terms of deployment, primarily due to outdated and inefficient utility pole access rules.

Utility poles act as the driving force for our country’s infrastructure and internet providers will require access to them in order 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 is the main way broadband providers are able to reach the “last mile” of service.

While this process may seem straightforward, it often isn’t. Internet providers are willing to pay the necessary fees to owners to cover the cost of access, but the system lacks a consistent framework for how responsibilities are divided or how disputes should be resolved. If disagreements arise, there’s no telling how long it will take for providers to get access and for broadband to be deployed. Meanwhile, our communities bear the brunt of this delay and are forced to wait for reliable internet access. Put simply, without pole access there is no rural broadband.

Currently, 45,000 Granite Staters lack high-speed internet, most of whom live in rural areas, which ranks us #33 for internet access in the U.S. A few months or years of delay can mean everything when every day without broadband is a day you fall further behind. Countless Americans rely on the internet for work, shopping, and telehealth.

The gap in educational attainment between students that have reliable internet and those that don’t is well documented. That a broken system continues to deprive countless Americans of this necessity will almost certainly have a negative and profound impact on economic, educational and social development.

Legislative action needs to be taken 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 passage of the bipartisan infrastructure law was a monumental step in the right direction for universal connectivity, but obsolete pole regulations threaten to squander that progress by delaying deployment and bleeding funding. We need faster procedures and fairer standards for pole access so that unserved Americans can get online now. For the nearly 14 million Americans that lack reliable internet, there’s not a second to spare.

(Steve Shurtleff, a Concord native, has been a member of the NH House of Representatives since 2004 and served as Speaker of the House from 2018 through 2020. )

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