The share of U.S. adults using the internet has not grown significantly since 2013, according to the Pew Research Center. It’s a trend reflected in rural broadband subscription rates that continue to lag significantly behind rates in urban areas.

The gigabit elephant in the room is the ridiculous amount we spend for broadband relative to the quality of services communities, especially rural areas, get. Federal agencies have been spending $6 billion per year since 2009 for rural broadband. Many of these federal grants have lax accountability penalties for internet service providers (ISPs) that fail to deliver what they promise.

The fear among many people working for greater broadband access is that the accountability won’t get any better with the $65 billion just approved in the infrastructure spending law enacted this week.  

Survey Says…

Nearly 60% of U.S. farmers and ranchers do not believe they have adequate internet connectivity to run their businesses, according to a report released last month by the Benton Institute for Broadband & Society. The Benton report summarized data gathered by the United Soybean Board after they surveyed farm operators nationwide from a range of agricultural sectors in 2021.

Some of the major barriers to a quality internet experience include slow internet speeds (21%), high costs (20%), and unreliable service (16%). Nearly one-third said internet connectivity has affected decisions about how and whether to upgrade farm equipment in the past 18 months. These barriers often are the direct result of ISPs’ lack of accountability, and we can’t afford to have history repeat itself.

Dr. Christopher Ali, an associate professor in the Department of Media Studies at the University of Virginia, was a guest recently on my Gigabit Nation show helping to make sense of the government’s legacy of accountability. Ali’s latest book, Farm Fresh Broadband: The Politics of Rural Connectivity, examines the complicated rural broadband policies in the U. S. and analyzes the politics surrounding these policies.

“Forty-seven billion dollars was spent between 2009 and 2017 specifically towards rural broadband deployment,” Ali said. “But the pandemic painfully and dramatically exposed the gaps in broadband connectivity. Farm operators who thought they were paying for a great broadband network found out that they couldn’t actually do multiple Zoom calls from home if they had multiple family members or business acquaintances working under the same roof.”

A 2018 Pew Research Center survey found that 24% of adults who lived in rural areas were more likely to say access to high-speed internet was a major problem in their local community. Yet, adoption rates have leveled off after more than a decade of rapid growth, even as broadband providers have extended service to remote and hard-to-serve areas. The pandemic just drove the numbers higher.

Ali believes a second part of the problem is inefficient spending. “In 2015, the FCC launched the Connect America Fund (CAF), Phase 2. They had a billion dollars a year to spend for six years, 2015 to 2021,” he said. “CAF morphed to the $20.4 billion Rural Digital Opportunity Fund (RDOF) in 2021. Rather than do a reverse auction, or ask communities or states for guidance, the FCC simply gave this money to the 10 largest telecommunications providers.”

RDOF eligibility rules favor those who don’t need the money, such as Elon Musk’s StarLink and other satellite providers. The rules also favor the lowest-cost technology, which means the FCC could award a lot of money to large companies who end up deploying slow, older technology. RDOF disadvantages places like Alaska and Appalachia where it costs much more to deploy. And there are not many penalties for lying about speeds ISPs promise to deliver.  

Judgment Day, When All Will Be Held Accountable

Change has to come to the broadband granting process if rural communities and farmers are to see significantly faster networks, affordable prices, and reliable customer services. Accountability must be real and not just a marketing phrase in sales brochures.

It has to start with the FCC. We must demand that U.S. senators approve President Biden’s two nominees to the FCC (Jessica Rosenworcel and Gigi Sohn), so that the regulator has its full allotment of five commissioners. We need a fully functional slate of commissioners to manage critical broadband policies, execute the massive funding programs, and enforce accountability. 

Grants and subsidies can help correct rural broadband market failure, but only if winners are held accountable. Kathryn de Wit, project director of the Pew Charitable Trusts’ Broadband Access Initiative, considers accountability a critical element in achieving universal broadband access because accountability “ensure that projects deliver on their promise to address the digital divide.”

Staff at every federal and state agency responsible for broadband infrastructure grants need to grow a collective steel spine and enforce a mandate. Hire compliance enforcers from the communities receiving funding, people who have had their phone or cable cut off.

“Stop the politics of good enough!” insists Ali. “We can’t keep thinking that DSL and satellite are broadband. They’re not, they’re from the days of dialup! We don’t consider dial up broadband anymore.”

CenturyLink won $505 million in 2015 to deploy just 10/1 Mbps to more than 1 million homes in 33 states before 2021. Six years later, CenturyLink had failed to accomplish that deployment target in 23 states. But even if they had met its deployment goals, a network that offers only 10/1 Mbps is not good enough to meet the needs of rural Americans.

Finally, establish higher goals for broadband infrastructure funding programs, such as 100 Mbps for both upload and download speeds. When reviewing project applications, program administrators should consider whether an applicant has failed to meet funding requirements in earlier programs. Again, accountability is key. Funding is needed to build high-capacity, scalable networks. We don’t need any more networks that are obsolete before they are built.

Craig Settles is a broadband industry analyst, consultant to local governments, and author.