At the U.S. Department of Commerce, we have witnessed first-hand the power of broadband to drive economic growth and innovation, open up new employment opportunities for Americans across the income spectrum and expand access to everything from education to healthcare to government services.
That’s why we see investing in broadband – and digital inclusion – as a critical part of our ongoing push to sustain the economic recovery and build the critical infrastructure that our nation needs to remain competitive in the 21st century. A top priority of the Commerce Department’s National Telecommunications and Information Administration is to work with communities across the country to ensure that all their citizens have access to high-speed Internet connectivity and the skills to use it to improve their lives.
Building on the Administration’s efforts to close the digital divide, the White House today announced a new interagency working group – called the Broadband Opportunity Council – to promote broadband investment and coordinate broadband policy across the federal government. The council will include representatives from 25 federal agencies and departments, and will be co-chaired by the U.S. Departments of Commerce and Agriculture. NTIA will spearhead work on the new program for the Commerce Department.
The Broadband Opportunity Council is the latest initiative in the Administration’s push to increase investment in our nation’s critical infrastructure, including roads, bridges, ports, drinking water and sewer systems and, of course, broadband networks.
A key mandate of the new council will be to survey government agencies to create a comprehensive inventory of federal programs, including federal funding options, that are currently available to support broadband or could be modified to do so. The council will also examine existing government policies and regulations, including permitting requirements and rights-of-way restrictions, to recommend changes to remove barriers to investment.
In addition, the council will solicit input from local officials, industry leaders and other stakeholders on ways that the federal government can incentivize broadband investment, drive competition and remove regulatory and policy barriers at the community level.
The Broadband Opportunity Council will complement the work of NTIA’s BroadbandUSA program, which is providing support to communities across the country seeking to expand broadband capacity and utilization. The BroadbandUSA initiative – highlighted byPresident Obama at an event in Iowa in January – builds on lessons learned and best practices from NTIA’s successful Recovery Actbroadband grant programs. Those programs have invested more than $4 billion in network infrastructure, public computer centers, digital literacy training and broadband mapping over the past six years. As of the second quarter of 2014, NTIA-funded projects had built or upgraded 113,500 miles of fiber and fixed wireless connections, hooked up 25,300 schools, libraries and other anchor institutions, and produced 671,600 new household broadband subscriptions.
While we have made tremendous progress as a nation in narrowing the digital divide, there is still more to be done. According to NTIA’sNational Broadband Map, roughly 15 percent of Americans still lacked access to wired broadband speeds of at least 25 megabits per second downstream and 3 megabits per second upstream – the Federal Communications Commission’s new benchmark for broadband – as of June 2014. At the same time, NTIA’s most recent Digital Nation report found 28 percent of American households still did not subscribe to broadband as of October 2012.
The BroadbandUSA program is providing resources – including technical assistance, toolkits and guides – to help communities assess local broadband needs, engage stakeholders, explore business models, evaluate financing options and attract private-sector investment. NTIA’s broadband team is also convening a series of regional workshops that are bringing together local government, industry and community leaders to study the broadband challenges they face and explore potential solutions. NTIA hosted its first regional broadband workshop in Minneapolis in September and its second one in Jackson, Miss., last month. More are in the works.
The Broadband Opportunity Council opens another front in this important campaign to close the digital divide and sustain the broader economic recovery. At the Commerce Department, we look forward to the work ahead.