We are a state of the people. When a need of all the people is not immediately met by the private sector, our instinct is to look to the state for a solution. In the case of broadband access, the state should be part of the solution, but they are not the solution.
In the COVID-19 world, working from home, connecting to school from a kitchen table and logging in safely and securely to connect with a health care provider became essential but nearly impossible for those who lacked connectivity.
To begin to solve these issues for all Oklahoma communities, an index of current broadband coverage access and availability must be mapped out, as well as a proper understanding of all the dollars and cents available from federal and state partners. Resources at the federal level are ready to be distributed to private carriers to help build networks in the areas where the internet has fallen behind. A handful of states have found responsible ways to encourage investment without competing with the private sector.
The investment needed to adequately serve more Oklahomans with broadband will be significant and is best spread across numerous carriers with experience in building and operating networks. Private carriers have existing infrastructure in place that can be upgraded or extended to expand service and the ability to make investments in long-term solutions while retaining a well-maintained infrastructure.
In markets where more than one carrier can be supported private funds should compete for their market share and customers.
Duplication of broadband infrastructure by the state would have negative repercussions, from a policy and economic development perspective. A state-run network would be counterproductive to increasing broadband access and deter private investment from those best positioned to provide it by undercutting their ability to recover investments in existing networks and reinvestment in upgrades and extensions.
The state would have to build a network from scratch - from infrastructure to customer service. It would enter the market and be directly competing with the private sector.
House Speaker Charles McCall and Senate President Pro Tempore Greg Treat established the Rural Broadband Expansion Council with House Bill 4018. The council will study and recommend long-term solutions to broadband issues. The State Chamber and its members are ready to serve as a resource and be a part of finding innovative ways to meet Oklahoma's broadband needs.
Note: This article was first published in The Journal Record on June 12, 2020.