Let’s Get The Politics Out Of Infrastructure

I believe the infrastructure of our country, states, and counties is critically important to our future. If we can get focused on infrastructure and global warming, the future for our kids and grandkids will be bright. All it takes is vision, leadership, and investment. Unfortunately, the issues have become politicized. In the case of infrastructure, the politicians have a tough time just defining what infrastructure is. The news is all political with very little substance about the specifics. Fortunately, the facts are available, thanks to the American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE).

The ASCE, founded in 1852, is the country’s oldest national engineering organization. It represents more than 150,000 civil engineers in private practice, government, industry, and academia. Every four years, the ASCE publishes a Report Card for America’s Infrastructure. The report card depicts the condition and performance of American infrastructure in the form of a school report card, assigning letter grades A to F based on the physical condition and needed investments for improvement. The most recent report card grade for the country is C-.

In addition to grades, the ASCE report makes specific recommendations for how to improve in 18 categories of infrastructure, with broadband newly added to the list. They also release periodic policy reports on infrastructure issues such as the economic impact of infrastructure underinvestment.

The infrastructure categories include the following:

  • Aviation
  • Bridges
  • Broadband
  • Dams
  • Drinking Water
  • Energy
  • Hazardous Waste
  • Inland Waterways
  • Levees
  • Ports
  • Public Parks
  • Rail
  • Roads
  • Schools
  • Solid Waste
  • Stormwater
  • Transit
  • Wastewater

The ASCE website has a lot of detail broken down by category and by State. To drill down on a particular category, click here. If you want to see the report card and specifics for a particular state, click here. The inclusion of Broadband in infrastructure was challenged by some politicians because it wasn’t brick and mortar. If Congress got an infrastructure report card, it would be a bold F- for lack of vision. The last administration and Congress talked about the need to pass infrastructure legislation and after four years had accomplished nothing. A bipartisan subset of the Senate has reached an agreement, but there is no assurance Congress will pass it.

Let’s take a closer look at Broadband, a generic term for high-speed internet access. The ASCE says, “Broadband enables students of all ages to learn online and businesses to reach customers and co-workers; facilitates electronic and verbal communications; provides access to healthcare and job openings; and can be the deciding factor of where a company chooses to expand. When the coronavirus pandemic forced millions of Americans to stay home in 2020 and 2021, an estimated one in five school-aged children lacked the high-speed internet connection needed to access lessons and other materials.”

How fast is “high-speed” internet access? The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) defines it as a download speed of 25 megabits per second (Mbps) or higher. In my opinion the minimum should be 100 Mbps. The bar is set way to low. Twenty-five Mbps used to be lightning fast but with the rich video content and interactions which are standard today, 25 is slow. There is some debate over how many Americans have access to broadband. According to the FCC, 93.5% of the U.S. population has broadband access. I believe politicians and lobbyists have meddled. The FCC defines having broadband access as one or more locations per census block has it. The low bar of 25 Mbps plus one location per block makes things seem much better than they are. The National Association of Counties estimated, in 2020,  65% of counties had average speeds slower than the FCC’s definition of broadband. It also reported counties of all sizes had connectivity issues, such as failure to connect, connections dropped, speed erratic, etc.

Not surprisingly, disadvantaged and rural communities are worse off. A study by the Center for Public Integrity reported families with household incomes over $80,700 are five times more likely to have access to broadband than a household with income below $34,800. Setting the target for broadband too low distorts the picture. It is much worse than reported.

The demand for broadband is going to continue to grow for education, healthcare, transportation, utilities infrastructure, and e-commerce. An industry group reported data use in 2018 was 73 times higher than in 2010. The telecommunications industry is investing but they can’t do what is needed while satisfying their investors. Expansion of broadband will require a huge amount of civil engineering to solve right-of-way issues, deploying more 5G cell sites, design and installation of poles, underground conduits, and towers.

Federal and state organizations have made significant investments in broadband but not enough. All of the other 17 infrastructure categories are dependent on reliable and fast broadband. We need leadership, vision, and investment. The bar needs to be raised so planning efforts can prepare us for the future and avoid technical obsolescence. If the subject continues as a political battle, we for certain will not get the best solution for our infrastructure needs.