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Partisan Disagreement Delays Broadband Funding That Might Come Through HEROES Act

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Screenshot of panelists from SHLB webinar

May 29, 2020 — A slew of bills addressing broadband concerns during the coronavirus pandemic have been proposed, but partisan disagreement over the details of spending packages has delayed the funding of broadband infrastructure, said panelists of a webinar hosted by the Schools, Health, & Libraries Broadband Coalition on Friday.

Panelists discussed the recently proposed bills and the likelihood of their enactment. Although there is recognition of the need to upgrade American infrastructure from both political parties, there has not yet been a major infrastructure bill passed by President Donald Trump.

Trump recently indicated his support for a Phase 4 stimulus package worth $2 trillion in infrastructure spending. Congress is considering bills to add $2 billion to the Rural Health Care Program, $4 billion to the E-rate program, $1 billion for Lifeline, $80 billion for broadband infrastructure, and $1.2 billion for digital literacy.

“Infrastructure” is a broad term and is defined differently along partisan lines. While members of the SHLB panel argued that infrastructure includes broadband, leaders of the Republican Party have previously contested this.

“It is proven that broadband increases economic development,” said Joseph Wender, senior policy adviser to Sen. Ed Markey, D-Mass. “If we’re going to continue to lead as a society, we need connectivity.”

The HEROES Act, including a number of initiatives to keep families and businesses online through the duration of the pandemic, passed in the House on May 15 by a vote of 208–199. If it passes in the Senate, the HEROES Act would provide $3 trillion in additional funding, of which approximately $5.5 billion would be allocated to broadband infrastructure.

The bill would also provide $1.5 billion through the Federal Communication Commission’s E-Rate Program, which aims to facilitate distance learning by providing additional funding to schools and libraries in their effort to provide Wi-Fi hot spots and devices to students affected by the digital divide.

Asad Ramzanali, legislative director for the office of Rep. Anna Eshoo, D-Calif., said he was hopeful about legislation being passed sooner rather than later.

Moderator Kelcee Griffis, a senior telecom reporter at Law360, suggested that while some provisions of the HEROES Act clearly relate to the coronavirus response, others are things that Democrats have been wanting for a while, such as the Prison Phone Justice provision.

Ramzanali argued that the bill “did not include advantages for Democrats” and that each provision has a “clear link to coronavirus.”

The bill faces a challenge seeking its final approval in the Republican-led Senate. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R -Ky., has argued against any connection between broadband and the coronavirus pandemic and has historically blocked legislation expanding rural broadband.

Wender claimed that there is private bipartisan support for measures aiming to close the digital divide, but Republican House members are proceeding with political caution to avoid challenging their superiors.

“The chances of a big infrastructure bill being passed before the end of Donald Trump’s term are low,” Wender concluded, noting that in the meantime, 7 million homes remain without broadband.

Contributing Reporter Jericho Casper graduated from the University of Virginia studying media policy. She grew up in Newport News in an area heavily impacted by the digital divide and has a passion for universal access and a vendetta against anyone who stands in the way of her getting better broadband.

China

New Leadership and Priorities for Republican-Led Energy and Commerce Committee

The new chair renamed three subcommittees, hinting at the GOP’s goals for the coming term.

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Photo of Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers in 2018 by Gage Skidmore, used with permission

WASHINGTON, January 27, 2023 — Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers, R-Wash., recently named chair of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, announced on Wednesday the new Republican leadership and membership of each subcommittee, giving insight into which members of Congress will be at the forefront of key technology decisions over the coming term.

McMorris Rodgers also announced changes to the committee’s structure, renaming three subcommittees and shifting some of their responsibilities. The changes aim to “ensure our work tackles the greatest challenges and most important priorities of the day, including lowering energy costs, beating China and building a more secure future,” McMorris Rodgers told Fox News.

Rep. Frank Pallone, Jr., D-N.J. — now the committee’s ranking member after serving as chair for the past four years — announced on Friday each subcommittee’s Democratic membership and leadership, and named Rep. Kim Schrier, D-Wash., as the vice ranking member for the full committee.

Rep. Kelly Armstrong, R-N.D., who will serve as the committee’s vice chair, is a vocal critic of Big Tech. In 2021, he was one of several Republicans who championed major reforms to Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act.

The committee’s new names hint at some of the ways that the committee’s priorities may shift as Republicans take control. The former Consumer Protection and Commerce Subcommittee is now titled the Innovation, Data and Commerce Subcommittee and will be chaired by Rep. Gus Bilirakis, R-Fla., alongside Ranking Member Jan Schakowsky, D-Ill.

Bilirakis and McMorris Rodgers have already announced the subcommittee’s first hearing, which will focus on U.S. global technology leadership and competition with China.

The Communications and Technology Subcommittee, now led by Chair Bob Latta, R-Ohio, and Ranking Member Doris Matsui, D-Calif., also emphasized competition with China in the announcement of a hearing on the global satellite industry.

Latta has previously spoken out against the total repeal of Section 230, but he has also expressed concerns about the extent to which it protects tech companies. In an April 2021 op-ed written jointly with Bilirakis, Latta accused social media platforms of engaging in “poisonous practices… that drive depression, isolation and suicide.”

The Environment, Manufacturing and Critical Minerals Subcommittee, formerly known as the Environment and Climate Change Subcommittee, will be led by Chair Bill Johnson, R-Ohio and Ranking Member Paul Tonko, D-N.Y.

The Energy Climate, and Grid Security Subcommittee, formerly known as the Energy Subcommittee, will be led by Chair Jeff Duncan, R-S.C., and Ranking Member Diana DeGette, D-Colo.

The Health Subcommittee will be led by Chair Brett Guthrie, R-Ky., and Ranking Member Anna Eshoo, D-Calif. The Oversight and Investigations Subcommittee will be led by Chair Morgan Griffith, R-Va., and Ranking Member Kathy Castor, D-Fla.

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Digital Inclusion

CES 2023: Congressional Oversight, Digital Equity Priorities for New Mexico Senator

Sen. Lujan once again voiced concern that the FCC’s national broadband map contains major inaccuracies.

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Photo of Sen. Ben Ray Lujan, D-N.M., in February 2018 by Keith Mellnick used with permission

LAS VEGAS, January 6, 2023 – Sen. Ben Ray Lujan on Friday endorsed “oversight at every level” of executive agencies’ broadband policies and decried service providers that perpetuate digital inequities.

Lujan appeared before an audience at the Consumer Electronics Show with Sen. Mark Warner, D-Va., and Sen. Jacky Rosen, D-Nev., to preview the tech-policy priorities of the 118th Congress.

Among Washington legislators, Senators had CES 2023 to themselves: Representatives from the House of Representatives were stuck in Washington participating on Friday in the 12th, 13th and 14th votes for House Speaker.

Congress allocated $65 billion to broadband projects in the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act of 2021, the bulk of which, housed in the $42.45 billion Broadband Equity, Access, and Deployment program, is yet to be disbursed. The IIJA funds are primarily for infrastructure, but billions are also available for digital equity and affordability projects.

Several federal legislators, including Sen. John Thune, R-S.D., have called for close supervision of Washington’s multitude of broadband-related programs. At CES on Friday, Warner argued that previous tranches of broadband funding have been poorly administered, and Lujan once again voiced concern that the Federal Communications Commission’s national broadband map, whose data will be used to allocate BEAD funds, contains major inaccuracies.

Affordable, high-speed broadband is now a necessity, stated Warner. Lujan argued that policy must crafted to ensure all communities have access to connectivity.

“The [Federal Communications Commission] is working on some of the digital equity definitions right now…. I don’t want to see definitions that create loopholes that people can hide behind to not connect communities,” the New Mexico senator said, emphasizing the importance of “the digital literacy to be able take advantage of what this new connection means, so that people can take advantage of what I saw today [at CES].”

At a Senate hearing in December, Lujan grilled executives from industry trade associations over allegations of digital discrimination.

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Congress

Omnibus Bill Includes FCC Spectrum Auction Extension, TikTok Ban on Government Devices

The spending package includes an extension of the FCC’s auction authority to March 2023.

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Photo of Rep. Jan Schakowsky, D-IL.

WASHINGTON, December 20, 2022 – A massive omnibus spending bill for fiscal 2023 released Tuesday includes a provision to extend the Federal Communications Commission’s spectrum auction authority at least until March 2023.

The commission’s authority has already been extended from September to December. But Tuesday’s $1.7 trillion appropriations bill to power the government through September would extend that authority further to March 9, 2023.

Experts and FCC officials have warned about letting lapse the commission’s authority to auction the valuable airwaves, which power wireless communications services.

Meanwhile, a bill introduced earlier this year, would extend the commission’s authority to March 31, 2024.

TikTok ban on government devices

The omnibus bill also includes a ban on video sharing app TikTok on government devices, cited in the bill as the “No TikTok on Government Devices Act.” The Chinese-owned company has been flagged as a possible national security threat because of its ties to the Chinese Communist government.

The provision requires that not later than 60 days after the bill’s enactment, the director of the Office of Management and Budget, in consultation with relevant agencies, “develop standards and guidelines for executive agencies requiring the removal of any covered application from information technology.”

The ban also covers any further apps developed or owned by TikTok parent company ByteDance.

Earlier this month, Maryland moved to eliminate the app from government devices and networks.

Consumer protection, cybersecurity measures

The sprawling bill also includes a provision to establish a national standard for online seller transparency and require the Federal Trade Commission to report on cross-border cyber attacks.

Rep. Frank Pallone, D-NJ., and Jan Schakowsky, D-IL., advocated for enhanced protections in the bill that puts the FTC at its center. That includes a Schakowsky-authored provision establishing a national standard – enforced by the competition agency and state attorneys general – that requires online platforms to verify the identity of high-volume third-party sellers so that consumers can get basic identification on the sellers.

Another provision, also authored by Schakowsky — chair of the Consumer Protection and Commerce Subcommittee — would require the FTC to report on cross-border complaints about ransomware and other cyber attacked committed by foreign individuals, companies and governments, specifically Russia, China, North Korea, and Iran.

Over the past two years, the U.S. has been the subject of major cyberattacks that struck financial services, oil transport, and software companies.

“This end-of-year package is in lock step with our Committee’s commitment to put consumers first,” said the representatives in a joint statement. “It includes legislation that will help curb the onslaught of counterfeit, defective, and unsafe products available to Americans shopping on third-party e-commerce sites—a major source of fake and unsafe goods. It also includes commonsense provisions to keep dangerous furniture products that can tip over on small children off the market and out of our homes.”

Congress is reportedly pushing for the passing of the bill before Christmas.

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