With campaign season comes promises that are forgotten after an election. This campaign, like campaigns past, candidates promise billions of dollars to rural and minority communities to deploy broadband. These communities still wait.
Without access to high-speed broadband, minority and rural communities will continue to be ignored places with few jobs, few skills, few employers and little access to education.
While these communities do not have the money to build their own telecommunications infrastructure, they simply can’t risk waiting for a federal government that makes promises it knows can never be fulfilled.
Securing high-speed broadband is necessary for these underserved communities due to where the economy is heading. The Shift Commission on Work, Workers, and Technology finds that large employers will no longer be the primary employers in the economy. By 2020 only half of workers’ income will come from wages, down from two-thirds in the 1960s. Some of this decline is due to the high cost of full-time employees. But robotics and artificial intelligence will impact many occupations that are employment opportunities in these communities, such as transportation, retail and food service
The United States is becoming a nation of freelancers. Highly skilled people will do well. For those without a solid education, work will be more tenuous. But those who live without access to high-speed broadband will be forever foreclosed from even being freelancers. Life in these communities will be dominated by single parent households, incarcerations, gang violence and drugs. Education provides a path out of poverty, but in the 21st Century that requires access to high-speed broadband.
How can communities address this challenge? They must first recognize that the federal government is not coming with the money. This understanding is essential to moving forward.
The primary goal for these forgotten communities is to become diverse entrepreneurial hubs. High-speed broadband will be the transforming catalyst. These technologies bring entrepreneurial opportunities, investment in support services, housing and infrastructure improvements.
To achieve transformation these communities must identify local leadership, available resources, and directly confront the impediments to success. This self-assessment allows them to organize community banks, local companies, foundations and trade associations, educational institutions, health and law clinics, and skilled retired workers to help implement their vision. These organizations and volunteers are accessible to every community.
Now that corporations are committing to balancing profits with the needs of workers and communities, this organizing effort should be more feasible.
If local banks are unwilling to help, there needs to be creative thinking about alternative forms of financing. Perhaps financial institutions could create a “50-year Community Infrastructure Mortgage,” which would replace the restrictive, time-limited municipal contracts. The successful Energy Savings Performance Contracts program (which involves a contractor putting in the energy efficient equipment and being paid out of the energy savings) could be modified into a “Community Infrastructure Performance Contract.”
As we think of these new financing mechanisms, we need to remember that the 30-year mortgage was developed to stabilize real estate during the Great Depression. Prior to that time, mortgages were mostly negotiated on a short-term basis.
Local communities should look at technology as an investment not a source of tax revenue. This starts by allowing the free placement of small-cell technology to create a 5–G area that would allow entrepreneurs to start new businesses with world-wide markets.
Builders who invest in low-income housing should integrate small cell 5-G technology into new housing to encourage big technology providers to put in the necessary cell towers.
The regulations surrounding Opportunity Zones should allow for investment in small businesses, not just large real estate projects that gentrify an area by forcing out poor residents.
Finally, minority businesses must be given more than lip service on access to federal contracts; they must be awarded contracts. Minority procurement in federal contracts has fallen from 8 percent in the Bush administration to 1.3 percent as of March 31, 2019. Some departments didn’t award minority businesses even one federal contract.
Many rural and minority communities in this country pulled themselves out of desperation with vision by becoming regional arts, theatre, festival, tourist and outdoor destinations. Every community can develop its own vision if it takes a hard look at leadership, local resources, and if citizens participate.
By including high-speed broadband in their vision, these communities can create a local economy that has access to the world. They just need to realize that the government is not coming to help.
Harry Alford is president and CEO of the National Black Chamber of Commerce. William L. Kovacs is author of Reform the Kakistocracy: Rule by the Least Able or Least Principled Citizens and a former senior vice president at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce.