Senate Tech Committee Holds Hearing on Broadband Accessibility

On Wednesday, the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation held a hearing on broadband, particularly about recent federal action to expand broadband and the progress that is being made, as well as the challenges to delivering “equitable broadband access in communities all around the country” and things to consider moving forward.

Committee Chair Sen. Maria Cantwell (D-Wash.) said in her opening remarks, “The last year has been a very stark reminder of how important broadband connectivity is to Americans. As we’ve faced a pandemic, the internet has become the place to go to work, to attend school, to see friends, to help visit the doctors, and do many of the day-to-day things that we’ve all had to do in our lives. We’ve had to struggle through the pandemic, but imagine what life would have been like if we didn’t have the internet during that time period. For millions of Americans, they don’t have to imagine, because some of them really didn’t have access to the internet.”

Cantwell also shared a story from a principal, where nearly 70% of students in that school district lacked broadband access and those that did have access, often did not have a signal that was strong enough for multiple children to attend virtual class.

As noted in the hearing, 37% of rural Americans could be paying more for internet connectivity than their counterparts in urban areas and approximately 63% of Americans in rural areas claim to have broadband internet access at home.

The participants emphasized that federal spending must be spent correctly, so that those currently without service, after more spending, do not remain without service. Additionally, the need for coordination among federal programs and agencies must be improved. Cantwell also noted that the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) estimated that it may take as much as $80 billion to close the digital divide. The Committee asserted that money must be spent wisely to close this gap and can develop a framework for it. Cantwell added that in addition to increasing access, “affordability, resiliency, redundancy, and security are also part of (the) agenda.”

The hearing comes after the FCC launched its $200 million telehealth program to increase telehealth services during the pandemic and established the Rural Digital Opportunity Fund for which the Commission allocated $9.2 billion through its Phase I auction, among other efforts. Congress also created the Reconnect program for rural communities. Additionally, the December 2020 COVID-19 relief package granted $7 billion in funding for broadband internet access via the Emergency Broadband Connections Act and established the Emergency Broadband Benefit Program. Meanwhile, the March 2021 COVID-relief package created a new $7.1 billion Emergency Connectivity Fund for the E-Rate program to support remote learning. Furthermore, Reps. Jamaal Bowman (D-N.Y.) and Emanuel Cleaver, II (D-Mo.) recently introduced a bill to expand affordable internet access to millions of Americans living in federally subsidized housing.

Some suggestions from witnesses include, for example, to adjust some of the standards required to participate in the Rural Digital Opportunity Fund auction, such as the geographic scope of participation to be more stringent, to not allow “some bidders to bid essentially in states they’ve never operated in.” Another witness suggested increasing broadband penalties, and that these expansions must remain technology-neutral. The third witness expressed concern about “making ineligible providers that received state or USDA support,” because winners of the Rural Digital Opportunity Fund grants cannot accept state funding and the vast majority of those that borrowed from the USDA telecom program also received funding from the FCC’s Universal Service Fund; and highlighted a need for coordination. The witnesses also discussed the need to increase the broadband speed rate, especially as people are working and learning from home. The witnesses also provided technological and equipment suggestions to reach hard-to-serve areas, concerns about competition and pricing, among other things.

“My hope is that the committee can develop a strong bipartisan framework to look at this issue as we move forward.” Cantwell said.