Utility poles key to closing digital divide

 
Updated 1/2/2022 7:51 PM

It is refreshing to see lawmakers on both sides acknowledge the urgent need to close the digital divide, an issue that has been further highlighted throughout the COVID-19 pandemic.

As most Americans were forced to function remotely, they were dependent upon internet access to stay connected, but those who lacked it fell behind, especially in the virtual classroom. While schools have reopened, the reality remains that millions of students still lack suitable internet access at home.

 

Now, after months of negotiations, the Infrastructure and Jobs Act has been signed into law. The law will allocate funds toward a wide array of essential initiatives, one of the most important being the $65 billion in federal funding to help low-income families afford broadband with a permanent benefit that goes to their internet bills as well as an effort to expand broadband infrastructure across the country.

But significant barriers still exist in terms of deployment, primarily due to outdated and inefficient utility pole access rules. Utility poles act as the driving force for our country's infrastructure. Internet providers typically do not own the poles so for any broadband expansion to begin, the pole owners and those doing the expansion must come to an agreement that allows internet providers to access the poles and attach their technology.

While this process may seem straightforward, it often isn't. Internet providers are willing to pay the necessary fees to owners to cover the cost of access, but the system lacks a consistent framework for how responsibilities are divvied or how disputes should be resolved. Congress can remove bureaucratic barriers that cause delays and work to increase transparency through consistent timelines for permits and access to poles.

We need faster, fairer standards for pole access so that unserved Americans can get online now. For the nearly 14 million Americans that live in areas with no access, there's not a second to spare.

Michael Navarrete, Alderman

Calumet City

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