Our nation is struggling with ensuring equal opportunities for remote learning for all students. One of the reasons for inequality is a lack of access to high-speed internet for many students.
After months of negotiations, President Biden and Congress passed the Infrastructure and Jobs Act that provides $65 billion for broadband expansion which could finally get every home, business, and community in America connected to high-speed internet.
As educators in Connecticut, we have seen first-hand that students who do not have access to high-speed internet are at a distinct disadvantage. They fall behind their peers who have access to the internet for homework and distance learning. Federal investment to fix our nation’s physical infrastructure, including internet access, is long overdue.
The reality is, life has changed a lot since the beginning of the pandemic, and regardless of where you live or what you do for a living, broadband access is an essential resource. The passage of the Infrastructure and Jobs Act could not have come soon enough, and while it was commendable that elected leaders recognize that our nation’s infrastructure needs modernizing, there are still legislative steps that need to be taken to ensure that Americans fully benefit from this law.
When it comes to broadband deployment, outdated regulations for utility pole access are still a significant barrier standing in the way of connecting over 14 million rural Americans.
As is the case with essentially all communications infrastructure, broadband expansion will be impossible without access to utility poles. Internet service providers can quickly deploy broadband by attaching their technology to poles, but providers usually don’t own these poles. Providers must be granted access to use the poles by the pole owners, who are often local municipalities, electric companies or small utilities and co-ops.
Providers have repeatedly shown a willingness to pay pole owners for access, but if disagreements arise, there’s no system in place to resolve disagreements quickly. This leads to a dragged-out process for resolution. The current nontransparent and disorganized system also neglects the importance of connecting unserved communities.
Millions of Americans remain deprived of suitable high-speed internet access simply because of where they live. Remote learning is just one of the many reasons why we cannot afford to delay closing the digital divide and must eliminate any barriers that will prolong broadband expansion. Obsolete pole rules are the most glaring barrier standing in the way. Our elected leaders can and must take action to modernize these rules.
Policymakers can bring greater transparency to the pole access process by ensuring there are clear permit timelines. We must ensure that disputes between pole owners and those deploying broadband are heard and resolved as quickly as possible.
Expanding broadband access is a major goal of the Infrastructure and Jobs Act. Our federal leaders recognize that high-speed internet access for all is essential today. But the goal of providing this access to unserved Americans can only be realized by eliminating the outdated barriers that delay broadband deployment. It’s time to fix our pole access rules to close the digital divide.
Anthony Ditrio is the Chairperson of the Connecticut Association of School Administrators (CASA).