As the country enters a new era, it finds itself behind in the infrastructure that will shape its future: broadband and the electric grid. A lack of investment in the wires and cables we take for granted threatens our economic growth. Fortunately, we can maximize the impact of public dollars through coordinated upgrades of our electric system and broadband infrastructure.
Our electric grid is inadequate for increasing amounts of renewable energy and our broadband infrastructure is overcome by the number of us who depend upon it for physical and economic survival.
What many do not realize is that the foundation for electricity and broadband are the same: they are both delivered via utility poles, wires, underground conduit, and increasingly, sub-sea cables. A major federal investment in that joint use infrastructure — the magnitude as seen in earlier economic crises — would create millions of new jobs, harness the power of renewable energy, and bring equal access to education, telehealth, government services, employment opportunities, and the digital economy delivered by the Internet.
Yet the reality of our infrastructure shortcomings is severe. The United States ranks 43rd in the world in internet bandwidth available per user, among the slowest in the developed world. Our Digital Divide separates those with quality broadband access from those without it, felt most acutely in rural, low-income, and minority communities. In Connecticut, the pandemic has brought the “Homework Gap” – the students without reliable, affordable broadband to complete mandatory online schooling – into stark relief.
There are two Americas online today: the 60 million Americans with fiber broadband with speeds at a gigabit or more via fiber optic or 5G that allow full participation in our society and economy, and the rest of the country stuck with old copper based systems that might be enough to watch a pixilated movie, but are not enough to attend their boss’s video conference, participate fully in a Zoom classroom meeting, or have an uninterrupted doctor’s appointment with a crisp image. The cable industry fills a gap for some currently but cannot reliably deliver the gigabit speeds needed for the future.
Meanwhile, as the U.S. faces the existential challenge of global warming, its electric grid is becoming outmoded, lacking the capacity to harness the full potential of wind and solar energy. The renewable technology is abundant, but not abundant is the infrastructure to bring it to our homes.
These fundamental challenges from an under-investment in basic infrastructure should be one of the top priorities of the Biden Administration. Modernizing New England’s internet and electrical grid is the best way to power the recovery from COVID-19 and build a more resilient and sustainable economic future.
Many states are funding broadband upgrades using the federal Coronavirus Relief Fund (CRF), including Gov. Ned Lamont’s $43.5 million Everybody Learns initiative. However, deep inequities remain, creating glaring disadvantages for the digital have-nots in the region, and support from the federal government is needed.
New England’s own grid lacks the capacity to meet the needs of the future, still largely relying on the century-old approach of burning fossil fuel to spin a generator. It remains dependent on natural gas for reliability, while ever-cheaper wind and solar power – coupled with advanced batteries – can boost reliability and gradually replace fossil fuel power plant emissions, and the pollution that exacerbates COVID 19.
New England’s blustery winds – both onshore and offshore – promise abundant, affordable renewable power. However, the grid must be updated to bring wind energy to population centers from wind farms in Maine and the skyscraper-sized wind turbines planned for south of Martha’s Vineyard and Nantucket. Encouragingly, Connecticut’s Department of Energy and Environmental Protection and the Governor’s Council on Climate Change both recommend addressing grid constraints that hinder renewable energy development – and exploring an “ocean grid” as well.
The region’s governors developed a bipartisan vision for reforming the way we plan and operate the grid, and must now build transmission through competitive processes that save money. We need to layer broadband investments into that vision. The federal government can use incentives to mobilize private investment and play an overarching convenor role for projects that span state borders.
The new era should be defined in part by ubiquitous broadband availability, energy equity and environmental stewardship — in New England and beyond. The need is clear. What’s needed now is leadership.
Joshua Broder is the CEO of Tilson, headquartered in Portland, Maine, with an office in Greater Hartford. Clarke Bruno is the CEO of Anbaric, based in Wakefield, Mass. Elin Swanson Katz is the VP of Utilities for Tilson and the former Connecticut Consumer Counsel.