KEENE, N.H. — A member of the Federal Communications Commission asked for the public’s help Friday in updating a broadband internet service map that is three years out of date.
Congress mandated the map’s creation nearly eight years ago, but it hasn’t been updated since June 2014, said Commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel. She has asked the public to email her about where there’s service and where there isn’t.
“I think this is a big problem. You cannot manage problems you do not measure,” she said. “We’re suggesting this to everyone, and we’re starting with you, New Hampshire.”
Rosenworcel was among the speakers at a Senate Commerce Committee field hearing in Keene, New Hampshire, arranged by fellow Democrat, Sen. Maggie Hassan, who has introduced bipartisan legislation to increase capacity for wireless internet providers and boost funding for broadband infrastructure in rural areas.
The cruelest aspect of the digital divide between rural and urban areas is the “homework gap,” Rosenworcel said Friday. According to FCC data, 70 percent of teachers assign homework that requires broadband access, but as many as 12 million children live in households without internet access. Some of these students resort to doing homework at fast food restaurants, while others linger in school parking lots in the dark because it is the only place they can get a reliable connection, she said.
Other speakers at the field hearing highlighted how lack of broadband internet access affects other populations. Joshua Cyr, of Alpha Loft, a New Hampshire nonprofit that helps startup companies, said lack of high speed internet exacerbates the problem of the state’s aging population because it turns away the young people the state is trying to attract.
Grant Spellmeyer, a US Cellular vice president, said the basic problem is broadband deployment is expensive. It costs an average of $400,000 to construct a cell tower, and in rural places like New Hampshire, it can cost more than $1 million because doing so involves clearing roads and other site work.
Spellmeyer estimated that it will cost at least $20 billion to expand broadband across rural America, and that price will climb as the next generation of wireless networks are rolled out.
“The biggest challenge for the arrival of 5G in rural America is the significant need for new towers,” he said.
Hassan said as she has traveled the state, as governor and now U.S. senator, she has spoken to many businesses, particularly in the North Country, who are struggling.
“Our people and businesses simply cannot compete in the 21st century innovation economy without broadband, and we must act now to address an urban -rural divide that has persisted in our country and in this state for far too long,” she said.