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Multiple Pieces of Broadband Legislation Moving Forward in Congress, on Data, Funding, Rural Broadband and Digital Equity

Masha Abarinova

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WASHINGTON, June 19, 2019 – At least a half-dozen separate pieces of broadband legislation are working their way through Congress, and panelists assembled by the Schools, Health, and Libraries Broadband Coalition on Wednesday commented on the pros and cons of how these bills would deploy broadband connectivity to unserved and underserved areas of the country.

The Leading Infrastructure for Tomorrow’s (LIFT) America Act, H.R. 2479, introduced last month by House and Energy Commerce Committee Chairman Frank Pallone, D-N.J., specifies that Congress allocate $40 billion for the deployment of secure broadband internet service to 98 percent of the country.

The dispersal of these funds needs to be done in a “technology-neutral” way, argued Philip Berenbroick, senior policy counsel at Public Knowledge. To prohibit discrimination between served and underserved areas, funding must be given preference to projects in low-income household areas as well as tribal areas, he said.

Similarly, the Digital Equity Act of 2019, S. 1127 by Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., is targeted to households and populations historically unserved or underserved. It would establish two grant programs to be administered by the National Telecommunications and Information Administration of the Commerce Department.

The would grant a total of $120 million so that each state could implement a comprehensive digital equity plan. A separate $120 million would go towards digital inclusion projects undertaken by individual groups, coalitions and communities of interest.

“The Federal Communications Commission should be looking at data on whether a household is actually served, rather than if it could be served,” said Berenbroick. Particularly, pricing data should also be considered to determine the cost people are paying outside the introductory “teasing period” of service, as affordability is a “huge barrier” towards adoption.

Senate Commerce Committee Chairman Roger Wicker, R-Miss., has introduced the Broadband (Deployment Accuracy and Technological Availability) DATA Act, S. 1822, with bipartisan support. (PDF). Also in the same vein is West Virginia Republican Sen. Shelley Moore Capito’s Broadband Data Improvement Act of 2019, S. 1522. (Congress previously passed a Broadband Data Improvement Act in 2008, which was later incorporated into legislation, as part of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009, that created the National Broadband Map and the National Broadband Plan.)

The broadband data bills place a focus on shifting to a more geographic “shape-file approach” to broadband mapping, and seek to cast a spotlight on individualized geographic address that are not served by broadband. The bills also aim to standardize the reporting of broadband data so that the FCC can determine if a provider “can actually provide services,” or is merely estimating its availability to reach that area, said Mike Romano, senior vice president of industry affairs at NTCA - The Rural Broadband Association.

Through the Broadband Interagency Coordination Act, S. 1294, also introduced by Chairman Wicker, federal agencies would be required to enter an interagency agreement in order to coordinate the distribution of funds for broadband deployment.

“These bills are aimed to make sure federal agencies are talking to one another and that their efforts are coordinated,” Romano said.

The panelists also touched upon the Reprioritizing Unserved Rural Areas and Locations (RURAL) Broadband Act of 2019, H.R. 2661, introduced by Rep. Scott Tipton, R-Colo., , which would ensure that the Rural Utilities Service consults with the FCC and receives appropriate funding.

The panelists also spoke about efforts to allocate $50 million dollars more in grant money towards various Rural Development programs at the Agriculture Department, including distance learning and telemedicine, said Thomas Cohen, partner at Kelley Drye and Warren, LLP. The RUS’ ReConnect program, unveiled in December, will provide $600 million in funds toward rural broadband deployment.

Yet Cohen cautioned providing too much coverage in one area. “If the private sector is putting in their own money you don’t want to undermine it, because the capital will move elsewhere if they see that the government is going to undercut them,” he said.

The biggest challenge for Congress is how to get these bills passed and paid for. Berenbroick said that 20 Megahertz (MHz) of radio frequency spectrum to be used on 5G wireless services is on tap. Because spectrum auctions generate ample funds, this legislation has generally been “paid for” under congressional scoring algorithms. Now, he said, the market is demanding the greater availability of spectrum in the middle of the radiofrequency band for 5G.

Panelists referred to Congress’ efforts last year to pass airwaves focused legislation that would have required the FCC to complete auctions granting new broadcast licenses for specified frequency spectrum bands. The bill became outdated by the time it reached the House and the Senate because.

A “good conversation starter” for pushing more legislation is how we interconnect broadband data with the rest of the world, said Romano.

(Photo of President Donald Trump signing two executive orders on rural broadband in January 2018 by Shealah Craighead used with permission.)

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