A year has passed since the Schools, Health & Libraries Broadband (SHLB) Coalition released “Connecting Anchor Institutions: A Broadband Action Plan.”
And it is still more relevant than ever.
The Action Plan was founded on the principle that every school, library, health clinic, and every other anchor institution needs access to affordable, high-capacity broadband to meet the growing needs of the 21st century.
At this point, the benefits of broadband at anchor institutions are fairly obvious (applying for jobs and government services, digital learning, telemedicine, etc.). Despite the glaring importance, anchor institutions are often overlooked as many policies focus on the needs of residents and businesses.
While residential broadband is certainly an important goal, anchors bridge the digital divide for the most vulnerable populations, such as senior citizens, low-income families, and rural communities. In addition, anchors have significant and unique broadband needs that need to be addressed separately.
The Broadband Action Plan identified key data points showing that many anchors lack adequate broadband today. A brief snapshot:
- 35 percent of schools most likely don’t meet the 2014-15 goal of 100 Mbps per 1,000 users (goal increases to 1 Gbps per 1,000 users in 2017-18 school year)
- 42 percent of libraries have speeds slower than 10 Mbps
- 59 percent of non-metro health facilities have speeds slower than 10 Mbps
To put this in perspective, Netflix recommends 25 Mbps to stream HD video. Now imagine hundreds of people who need to use that connection at the same time.
The Action Plan provides the roadmap for how to get our schools, libraries, and health clinics up to speed. It provides ten policy papers that summarize key issues, provide examples, recommend policies, and provide resources for further research.
While the Action Plan presents ten policy papers, three common themes emerge:
Sharing, aggregation, partnerships, and collaboration were several common solutions. Public-private partnerships are often the best model to bring parties together behind a comprehensive broadband strategy. In addition, many users on a single network make network deployment and use far more affordable.
Anchors come in all shapes and sizes, so they should also have a wide-range of competitive options. Some anchors may choose to purchase lit fiber, dark fiber, Wi-Fi, cellular, cable, or other technologies. Some may prefer to engage a traditional broadband provider, a non-incumbent provider such as ENA that delivers managed broadband services to education and library communities nationwide, a municipality, or a research and education network. Others may choose to build their own broadband networks. More options equals more competition, which can drive down prices.
Deploying broadband networks can be expensive, and additional investments from both the private and public sectors are needed to meet connectivity goals. Often, the biggest barrier to acquiring high-capacity broadband can be the up-front deployment costs.
The past year has been a mixed bag. Since the release of the Action Plan, there has been a heightened awareness of broadband’s importance in modern society. The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) created the Broadband Deployment Advisory Council (BDAC), the Senate Broadband Caucus has been an especially vocal proponent, and the FCC has started the process of improving its broadband data collection.
Yet this year has also come with its fair share of disappointment, especially in respect to funding programs.
- According to Funds for Learning, over half of E-rate fiber applications were denied by the Universal Service Administrative Company (USAC).
- The Lifeline program is in disarray after the FCC cancelled the authority of nine Lifeline providers to provide service and a damaging Government Accountability Office (GAO) Report.
- Rural Health Care program applicants suffered a 7.5 percent cut in funding with more cuts possible in the future.
While there is a heightened awareness of broadband’s importance, there are troubling signs that the needs of today’s anchor institutions are not being adequately addressed. The National Broadband Plan calls for anchor institutions to have gigabit broadband by the year 2020, however, the FCC is proposing to define broadband deployment success in terms of today’s speeds rather than the speeds needed to support future growth. It is important for policymakers to get engaged and provide the means to meet these goals.The SHLB Action Plan does not contain all the answers, but it does have a wide variety of recommendations for diverse communities. You can access the Action Plan at shlb.org/action-plan.
This is the beginning of a monthly series brought to you by the SHLB Coalition. It will explore problems, pitfalls and solutions for anchor institution broadband. The series includes a monthly blog and webinar that folds in current developments with past research. We invite you to engage and learn more by following online and visiting www.shlb.org/grow2gig.