Rep. Jason Saine, District 97-Lincoln County N.C. House of Representatives
Some 276,000 North Carolinians are currently getting discounted internet via the Federal Communications Commission's temporary Emergency Broadband Benefit Program. Around $14 billion of the infrastructure bill is going to extend that program to provide a $30 monthly subsidy to help low-income people pay for internet.
Jason Saine, who represents Lincoln County in the NC House of Representatives, offers the following editorial opinion on expanding internet access:
Funding provided during the Trump administration along with additional funding included in the recently passed Bipartisan Infrastructure Bill are huge steps in the right direction towards the goal of expanding high-speed internet service to rural, unserved areas of the country.
The Federal Communications Commission estimates that more than 470,000 North Carolinians still lack access to high-speed internet. One valuable lesson learned during the pandemic - when so many people were working and learning from home - is that those who lack access to high-speed internet are at a distinct disadvantage.
A recent study assessing the impact that closing the digital divide has on the economy found that a 10 percentage-point increase in broadband penetration in 2014 would have created more than 875,000 American jobs and $186 billion more in economic output in 2019. Delays to broadband deployment to unserved communities is holding back the American economy.
With so much funding already allocated, it is imperative that we ensure that taxpayer dollars don't go to waste, and that broadband is delivered to unserved communities in a speedy and efficient manner. Unfortunately, obsolete utility pole regulations stand in the way of achieving that goal. Utility poles serve as the backbone of our nation’s communications infrastructure – in order to expand broadband, service providers will need access to these poles so that they can attach the necessary technology. But on a given project, providers must be granted pole access by pole owners, who are often a mix of different entities - electric companies, small utilities and co-ops and local governments.
In too many instances, broadband deployment is delayed by needless bureaucratic delays during negotiations for pole access between providers and pole owners. Service providers are willing to pay for access to these critical poles, but confusing and inconsistent rules cause these negotiations to be dragged out much longer than necessary.
We've been fighting for increased broadband access in the NC General Assembly. I was proud to have bipartisan support for HB 950 – Expand Broadband Unserved/Underserved Areas. But now lawmakers in Washington need to understand that the effort to bring broadband to unserved communities has only just begun. While investment in addressing the issue is needed, further attention must be paid to cutting the red tape that threatens to delay deployment, bleed taxpayer dollars, and cost American jobs.
Congress should establish a more consistent framework for cost-sharing to eliminate delays. Elected officials should put in place consistent timelines for permits and access to poles. The current regulations lack transparency and create great uncertainty about when broadband will be delivered. Dependable guidelines for pole access permit approval will set forth a more open process that expedites broadband deployment. Finally, lawmakers should ensure that disputes between pole owners and providers are heard and resolved quickly. Currently, these disputes can go unresolved for months or years – creating totally unacceptable delays.
Billions in taxpayer dollars have been allocated to address the digital divide, but bureaucratic barriers threaten to delay infrastructure expansion. Lawmakers in Washington must modernize pole access rules if we hope to use those taxpayer dollars efficiently and bring broadband to the millions of rural Americans who still lack it.
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