FCC’s Pai Proposes ‘Gigabit Opportunity Zones’

Other Reforms Would Ease Broadband Deployment, Bridge Digital Divide

Today, Ajit Pai, a Republican Commissioner for the Federal Communications Commission, laid out a broad “Digital Empowerment Agenda” — specific measures Congress, the FCC, and state and local governments could take to help bridge the digital divide.

Pai proposed suggesting “Gigabit Opportunity Zones” in low-income communities willing to make broadband deployment easy, where Congress would offer tax incentives and credits to support private fiber deployment. Pai invoked the concept of Enterprise Zones first championed by Congressman Jack Kemp (R-NY) in 1980, and later when he was Housing and Urban Development Secretary, to drive investment in America’s inner cities.

Pai also highlighted the challenges of deploying broadband in rural areas, urging (i) the FCC to take an active role in preempting local and state barriers to deployment, while also developing recommended best practices; (ii) Congress to give the FCC authority over the rates charged by state and local governments for access to rights of way, and (iii) Congress to make it easier to deploy broadband infrastructure on Federal land and along interstate highways.

This speech is a breath of fresh air,” said Berin Szóka, President of TechFreedom. “For the last six years, the FCC has cynically invoked inadequate broadband deployment as a pretext for pushing its preconceived regulatory agenda — while doing next to nothing to make broadband deployment easier. The right question has never been whether the FCC should act, but whether it’s focused on the right goals and is acting within its legal authority. At last, Commissioner Pai has set forth a bold vision for what an active FCC can do with its existing legal authority — and why it needs additional, narrow authority from Congress — to ensure that all Americans can join in the Digital Revolution. Under a better FCC, this kind of speech wouldn’t be so extraordinary — it would be routine.”

We’re delighted that Commissioner Pai has embraced TechFreedom’s proposal for a Broadband Deployment Advisory Committee,” said Tom Struble, Policy Counsel at TechFreedom. “We’ve urged the FCC to convene technical experts, broadband providers, state and local government officials with direct responsibility for infrastructure, and other stakeholders to study barriers to broadband deployment and propose best practices to remove them. We’re thrilled that Commissioner Pai has taken up this call. Developing a model code for how to ease broadband deployment is one of the most valuable things the FCC could do, and the agency doesn’t need to wait for Congress to do it. Of course, we would’ve preferred that the Commission start this work years ago — particularly once Google Fiber started bringing these questions to the fore — but, having failed to do so, its effort now is commendable. There’s no time like the present to ensure a better broadband future for all.”

Perhaps most refreshing of all is that Pai didn’t just focus on gigabit, fiber-to-the-home service,” concluded Szóka. “Gigabit Opportunity Zones are absolutely worth trying in cities dense enough to make fiber-to-the-home deployment worth subsidizing. But there will never be a single, technological solution for connecting the entire country. In some low-income areas, subsidies would be better directed at pushing fiber closer to the home, and relying on evolving technologies like VDSL2 (25–75 Mbps), G.Fast (150–1,000 Mbps) or high-speed wireless to close the divide. That’s especially true in rural and tribal America, where low population density makes last-mile upgrades prohibitively expensive. Many low-income people live in small towns too remote to have a fiber connection between the town and the rest of the Internet. For them, the problem is the ‘middle mile,’ and bridging that divide means easing deployment across real-world bridges and highways. Chairman Wheeler’s fixation on gigabit service has distracted from these very real problems.”

Read Pai’s speech, delivered today in Cincinnati, and a summary of his Digital Empowerment Agenda.


We can be reached for comment at media@techfreedom.org. See our other work on broadband deployment, including:

  • Comments on the FCC’s 2016 evaluation of broadband deployment
  • Comments on the FCC’s 2015 evaluation of broadband deployment
  • Our letter to the House Energy and Commerce Committee on how to best encourage broadband deployment.
  • Op-ed in Wired: “Don’t Blame Big Cable. It’s Local Governments that Choke Broadband Competition
  • Our statement on the FCC’s plan to remove barriers to the deployment of new wireless infrastructure
  • Tech Policy Podcast #119: FCC Loses on Government Broadband