Opinion: Preparing for Broadband Investment
By Gina Stewart and Ashley Greenspan
The writers are, respectively, executive director of the BWI Business Partnership and public affairs manager at Crown Castle.
During his recent trip to Baltimore, President Biden touted his Build Back Better plan and how his administration will heavily invest in social programs, climate change mitigation and infrastructure to help the post-pandemic recovery effort. The passage of the infrastructure bill is the first step in this process and represents a great opportunity for Maryland to address some of the biggest concerns that were highlighted during the pandemic.
One of the biggest provisions in the recently signed infrastructure bill is the funding for increased broadband access.
Maryland will receive at least $200 million for expanding high-speed internet access, which is in addition to the $400 million investment that the state announced to address the digital divide through the launch of Connect Maryland in August.
While this is a positive development for the state’s residents who struggled with internet access through the pandemic, it will be important ensure smart policies are in place to efficiently invest in solutions for the digital divide that will reach communities throughout Maryland.
The digital divide impacts rural and urban regions alike across the state.
The Pew Research Center finds that 15% of American adults rely exclusively on a smartphone to get online — a trend that is only growing. As a result, policymakers must consider expanding both wired and wireless access, particularly since historically underserved communities are more likely to rely on a wireless device. And with the coming transition to 5G, the next generation of wireless connectivity with speeds up to 100 times faster than the 4G standard — those that rely on mobile broadband will have better connectivity to participate in the digital economy.
Over 30 states have taken critical steps to expand mobile broadband, including enacting small cell legislation, which creates a clear path for companies to build out the technology needed for wireless connectivity. If Maryland were to enact similar legislation, we could move past the current hodgepodge of local regulations and speed up the process of bringing more connectivity to the state.
Additionally, lawmakers can further streamline the deployment of wireless infrastructure by utilizing public assets to deploy small cells and antennas.
By building out this infrastructure on public institutions, like libraries, schools and other government buildings, more members of the community will have faster speeds and better connectivity. Municipalities can also utilize right of way infrastructure like utility poles or streetlights to support 5G small cell designs that allow for multiple carriers, expanding choice and fostering competition to drive down costs.
To see the full benefits of mobile broadband, policymakers must push back on misinformation about health impacts from mobile infrastructure which is derailing the promise of 5G. The consensus of seven decades of research by worldwide health and safety organizations is that electromagnetic emissions from communications antennas at the levels allowed by FCC regulations are safe.
Officials will need to dispel 5G myths as they work to expand broadband in their communities.
The funding from the infrastructure bill represents a great opportunity to eliminate the digital divide and ensure that Maryland is able to compete in the digital age. Lawmakers and leaders must carefully analyze how to fully seize this opportunity and must make the most of it.