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Senate Committee Simultaneously Praises Broadband Providers and Scorns Broadband Maps

David Jelke

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Screenshot of Senate hearing

May 13, 2020 — “Among the 10 largest countries in world, the U.S. is the only nation that reported no substantial degradation last month in terms of speed,” said US Telecom CEO Jonathan Spalter at a Senate hearing on “The State of Broadband Amid the COVID-19 Pandemic” Wednesday.

The assertion, which Broadband Breakfast was not able to verify, piqued the interest of many of the gathered senators, some of whom attended via videoconference.

Spalter credited US Telecom member companies for working hard. He said the organization Smart Cities helped convert 18 different convention centers around the country into emergency hospitals for COVID-19 victims.

Spalter also touted member company Verizon’s $55 million donation to COVID-19 related causes and member company Century Link’s help in converting the battleship USS Mercy into a floating hospital.

Spalter recalled asking Smart City board member Marty Ruben why he continued to help convert convention centers into hospitals.

“There was never any question,” Ruben responded, according to the US Telecom CEO. “These are our communities.”

When witnesses brought up the unexpected challenges that internet service providers face in ensuring enough speed for uploads due to heavy use of symmetrical data-munchers like Zoom, Senate Committee Commerce Chairman Roger Wicker, R-Miss., cut them off to get a direct answer.

“Are we doing well on upload?” he asked.

“That’s the beauty of fiber,” NTCA CEO Shirley Bloomfield replied, referring to fiber optic cables’ high-speed and symmetrical properties.

Spalter also named a few key ingredients in the American economic recipe that were effective in improving broadband speeds: network investment, a regulatory light touch and a forward-looking perspective.

Similarly, Sen. John Thune, R-S.D., identified Europe’s heavy-handed approach as being the reason why European countries are reporting slower than average broadband speeds.

Broadband mapping also comes in for criticism at the hearing

But that didn’t stop the committee from beating everyone’s favorite dead horse: The Federal Communications Commission’s broadband maps.

Senators were very conscious of the fact that not all broadband data can be trusted due to unreliable maps.

Large portions of rural America were left out of the FCC’s official broadband map that both industry and government rely on to make future decisions, said Sen. Jon Tester, D-Mont.

“It actually blows my mind,” he added.

Tester was both encouraging of proactive broadband buildout efforts and skeptical that buildout money would be used efficiently, given the map’s troubled past, worrying that the FCC might be acting recklessly by “building out because [it] can’t get the information on maps correct.”

Bloomfield responded that since the FCC’s initiatives to encourage buildouts initially grant funds to the most underserved, it is actually “a wise course of action.”

Steven Berry, the CEO of the Competitive Carriers Association, agreed. “I think we can walk and chew gum at the same time,” he assured the testy senator.

Wicker agreed with the witnesses’ reasoning but waved off their relatively lax attitudes, saying that the Rural Digital Opportunities Fund auction has to happen no later than October.

The senators’ concern with broadband mapping underscored their recognition of the importance of universal broadband in America.

“We need high speed internet,” Tester said. “Otherwise we don’t have health care at a distance, we don’t have tele-education.”

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