Availability, Affordability, and Assistance: Addressing Barriers to Small Business Broadband Adoption

By Assistant Chief Counsel, Jamie Saloom

Broadband is a critical input for small businesses, and the Office of Advocacy (Advocacy) has consistently supported policies and regulations that reduce barriers to broadband deployment. For example, last year, Advocacy submitted public comments to the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) asking for regulatory reforms that would increase competition and broadband access in multi-tenant environments. Advocacy research has also shown that small businesses in rural communities have fewer choices and higher prices than their counterparts. The reasons for this gap are varied, and policymakers have attempted to bridge this gap in several ways with mixed success. 

Advocacy staff has engaged directly with small businesses throughout the country to learn about how broadband access affects them. Thanks to these conversations, Advocacy has learned that the primary barriers to broadband adoption for rural small businesses are availability and affordability, as well as a lack of access to affordable devices. Small businesses also need technical assistance and education to help them leverage broadband into their business practices, once it becomes available at affordable prices. 

Achieving widespread broadband adoption brings benefits to rural communities like access to healthcare, education, employment, and government services. However, rural community leaders have shared that broadband adoption requires outreach with people who may be skeptical of technology. 

The passage of the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law brought renewed hope for underserved communities, including rural communities, trying to cross the digital divide. The law made a $65 billion investment to expand affordable and reliable high-speed Internet access through a series of grant programs administered by the National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA) and the FCC.   The law also provided additional funding for the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) ReConnect program, which is specifically designed to fund rural, remote, and unserved communities.

The bulk of the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law broadband funding will be distributed through NTIA’s $42.45 billion Broadband Equity and Deployment (BEAD) program, its $1 billion Middle Mile Broadband Infrastructure Program, its $2 billion Tribal Broadband Connectivity Program, and its $2.5 billion Digital Equity Act Programs. To see where and how this historic funding is being spent, NTIA has provided a dashboard which tracks spending by state and grant program. Recently, the Biden Administration announced that nearly $1 billion in additional funding will be made available through a second round of funding for the Tribal Broadband Connectivity Program. Additionally, states are seeking public comment on their BEAD and Digital Equity Act plans, before submitting them to NTIA for approval. 

This week, USDA announced $700 million in grants and loans to connect rural communities in 22 states and the Marshall Islands under the ReConnect Program. The announcement included investments communities that are part of the Rural Partners Network (RPN), which partners with state and local organizations to address the needs of rural communities by developing and implementing plans for broadband deployment. 

The FCC was also tasked with several initiatives to reduce barriers to broadband deployment and adoption under the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law. Notably, FCC announced last week that more than 20 million households (3 million rural) have enrolled in the agency’s Affordable Connectivity Program, which provides direct subsidies to eligible households in the form of a discount of up to $30 per month toward internet service and up to $75 per month for eligible households on qualifying Tribal lands. Eligible households can also receive a one-time discount of up to $100 to purchase a laptop, desktop computer, or tablet. This week, the FCC announced that it will recharter the Precision Agriculture Connectivity Task Force to examine connectivity in meeting the production and sustainability challenges facing agricultural and food systems. In addition, the Precision Agriculture Connectivity Task Force is seeking representatives from diverse and historically underrepresented communities, including socially disadvantaged farmers and ranchers, to apply for membership to the Task Force and its working groups. The FCC has also made steps to develop regulations to prevent digital discrimination as required by the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law and will finalize rules this year. 

Advocacy is encouraged by the steps that NTIA, USDA, and FCC have taken to address the digital divide and is actively engaging with both agencies to ensure that small businesses can connect, no matter where they are. Please reach out to Assistant Chief Counsel Jamie Saloom at Jamie.Saloom@sba.gov, or one of our regional advocates near you, to share your input on these important issues.