Public Policy

IEEE Section Engagement to Address Community Broadband Needs

By Jim Isaak

One of the lessons learned from the pandemic is the value of broadband capability locally. Over the last year, broadband has been the key for employment, education, entertainment and safely connecting with family and friends. I want to encourage IEEE Sections and members to help their local government entities (town, county, state) to identify the path forward for 21st century networked communications. A key reality here is that the situation and solutions in each locale will vary, now and over time. The types of infrastructure(s) that are involved have long physical life spans, and in some cases relatively short technical viability. IEEE members have the combination of technical perspective and corporate independence needed to advise informed decision-making in this area. IEEE is about “Advancing Technology for Humanity,” and this is a step in that direction you can take locally.

Gauge the Current State of Broadband Access

This starts with having a sense for what the current state of broadband access is in your communities, what is needed, and what the opportunities are. There are some communities where each residence has the option of fiber-to-the-residence, cable broadband, and high-speed wireless cell service — perhaps even 5G with the full set of promised capabilities.  With this range of competition, it is very likely that 100Mbit plus, full duplex Internet connection is available at a low cost, probably in the $80 range per month.  In some areas, municipalities have undertaken provision of fiber-to-the-residence offering up to 1Gbit in this price range[i], and as a result, incumbent monopolies have dropped prices and increased services.

“Incumbent monopolies” is not a disparagement on anti-trust grounds, but a recognition that the infrastructure involved for broadband services are “natural monopolies.” The concept of having every wireless supplier installing its own towers, every cable company adding cables to utility poles, and so forth is irrational. The recognition of the intersection of natural monopolies and essential public services has been behind government programs such as interstate highways,  rural electrification, the 1934 telecommunications act (that encouraged universal service by granting local monopolies accepting that obligation), and more recently “Community Antenna TV” (CATV). These have evolved over time with divestitures, service expansion and much lobbying at various government levels. In theory, communities would have competing suppliers hoping to capture the “triple play,” providing voice, entertainment (TV) and Internet as a bundled set of services. To encourage consumers, this often means a fairly high entry price per month, with a minimal cost for adding the other two services on top of this. To prevent competition, suppliers have encouraged legislation at the state level to block municipal services, and pushed for exclusive contracts at town and even sub-division/multi-unit development levels. Once a supplier has an exclusive arrangement or legal protections, it has little pressure to provide competitive rates, either in monthly costs, or full-duplex broadband provision.  Recently, some providers have sought to exclude or ‘throttle’ the bandwidth of competing content suppliers, giving their own services or premium services an advantage.  Over the last few years, streaming services over the Internet have created a serious challenge for incumbents trying to maximize their revenue streams, and created an opportunity for un-bundling costs by consumers — if they have sufficient, independent broadband.

Consider the Effects of the New Normal

Enter the pandemic. Prior to 2020, the need for a residence to sustain high bandwidth (25Mbit download is the current FCC definition for broadband) was very limited, and rarely a family and public necessity. With schools, jobs and health care going “virtual,” along with entertainment and social activities, this has changed, and it is likely to remain changed in some of these situations.  With kids interacting online for school, parents working from home, and even groups like IEEE moving seminars to virtual events, the value of residential broadband has become evident.  It is now clear that communities that have this infrastructure at a reasonable cost will have an advantage for education, employment, health care, social connectivity, continuing education and more; which leads to the questions and considerations that can be pursued locally:

  1. Develop a rough map of what broadband services are currently available in the communities in your Section. Sites like Measurement Lab can help with this effort. The FCC also has a Fixed Broadband Deployment Map, but be aware that the FCC historically has considered a census district as having broadband if a single residence has access to broadband in that district. This makes ‘ground truth’ difficult to understand, particularly in rural and mountainous communities. Measurement Lab not only runs and consolidates field data, it also makes this available for analysis. Students, researchers or interested professionals can use this to build their own location-specific maps.
  2. Identify what practical opportunities exist, and limitations on these in various localities. Some employers (particularly those hiring IEEE Tech professionals) are likely to benefit from residential broadband access. Attracting these employers, or even the employees of such companies where the “office” may be thousands of miles away is of benefit for many towns. Similarly, the ability to meet some amount of pre-college education “at home,” as well as college and continuing education is of benefit.  Finally, virtual connections for health care, town meetings, legal proceedings, and other essential services is the future of the 21st Document these opportunities in local terms and examples so policy makers have the perspective they need to consider both immediate and strategic plans.
  3. Identify constraints that may interfere with cost-effective broadband access. Some states have passed laws to prevent municipalities from providing broadband. Even for towns that are not ready to consider such actions, having this option increases the incentives for incumbent suppliers to improve services. Local contracts may also interfere with competitive options. Often these were established with exclusivity to encourage infrastructure investment, but now they can be the constraint that prevents providing the infrastructure needed to serve all of the residences. Action may be possible to sunset exclusive arrangements that limit schools, libraries, even private developments and home owner associations from pursuing competitive options.
  4. Document the ‘ground truth’ in the areas of your Section. What does 5G actually mean in terms of coverage, bandwidth and access?  Where is fiber already at the curb?  What capabilities do your local phone or cable companies have, and what incentives to meet 21st century needs?  Pre-COVID, Consumer Reports was recommending 48 Mbit rates for high-quality entertainment[ii]. If you add in emerging Internet of Things (IoT) devices and the virtual pandemic-at-home applications this is more of a 2020 requirement than a strategic objective with a decade or two of applicability.
  5. Recognize the reasons in your communities why folks may not be connected. Many urban areas have low connectivity rates due to cost as opposed to accessibility[iii]. If your communities are moving from broadband entertainment to broadband necessity then this is a significant issue.
  6. IEEE members can provide community education on using the technology for senior centers, classrooms, etc. via public libraries and other paths to help community members become comfortable and effective at operating in our online world.

Communicate Your Findings

Finally, share your experiences in your newsletters, local media, and IEEE channels like Collaboratec’s communities on Local Government and Internet Tech Policy. IEEE makes a difference, and so can you!

[i] PULSE service in Loveland Colorado for example, which includes significant rural, mountainous terrain — but the town also already provides electrical service which has some of the infrastructure associated with fiber provision.


Jim Isaak worked 30 years in the computer industry, and six in the academic world. He is past President of the IEEE Computer Society, past Vice President of the IEEE Society on Social Implications of Technology, currently New Hampshire Section Chair, and immediate past chair of the IEEE-USA Committee on Communications Policy.

Guest Contributor

IEEE-USA is an organizational unit of the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers, Inc. (IEEE), created in 1973 to support the career and public policy interests of IEEE’s U.S. members. IEEE-USA is primarily supported by an annual assessment paid by U.S. IEEE Members.

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