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Senators Introduce Healthcare Broadband Bill as House Companion, Proposes $2 Billion Telehealth Expansion

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Photo of Sen. Kevin Cramer by Gage Skidmore used with permission

May 26, 2020 — On Friday, Sens. Brian Schatz, D-Hawaii, Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, John Boozman, R-Arkansas, Gary Peters, D-Michigan, Angus King, I-Maine, Dan Sullivan, R-Alaska, Kevin Cramer, R-N.D., and Ed Markey, D-Mass. introduced “Health Care Broadband Expansion During COVID-19 Act,” the Senate companion bill to H.R. 6474.

The bill would expand the Federal Communications Commission’s Rural Health Care Program, which offers funding to eligible health care providers for broadband and telecommunications services.

House Energy and Commerce Health Subcommittee Chairwoman Anna G. Eshoo, D-Calif., had on April 10 introduced the House version of the bill with Rep. Don Young, R-Alaska

The House version of the bill would include mobile clinics and temporary health facilities deployed in response to the coronavirus pandemic.

“The coronavirus has only increased the need for high-quality and reliable internet connectivity as healthcare is increasingly delivered through telehealth and healthcare professionals depend on broadband for every aspect of their operations,” Eshoo said.

Healthcare providers currently pay an average of over $40,000 per year for broadband connectivity. The FCC’s Healthcare Connect Fund Program subsidizes 65 percent of the cost of broadband for eligible public and nonprofit rural healthcare facilities.

The proposed House bill would expand the program to include rural, urban and suburban healthcare facilities and increases the subsidy rate to 85 percent. The bill also streamlines administrative requirements to ensure healthcare providers receive funding as quickly as possible.

“As technology has advanced, so too has the delivery of healthcare,” said Young. “Telehealth is a proven healthcare delivery method, but requires access to reliable broadband connectivity.”

coalition of 48 healthcare organizations endorsed the House bill and its companion in the Senate. Supporters include:

  • Stanford Health Care
  • California Telehealth Network
  • Schools, Health & Libraries Broadband (SHLB) Coalition
  • American Health Care Association
  • Association of Clinicians for the Underserved
  • Healthcare Leadership Council
  • Rural Health IT Corporation
  • College of Healthcare Information Management Executives
  • National League of Cities
  • National Association of Counties
  • ACA Connects—America’s Communications Association
  • USTelecom – The Broadband Association
  • NCTA — The Internet & Television Association
  • The Fiber Broadband Association

“Like the companion legislation introduced in the House, this plan recognizes that all of our country’s hospital systems and health care providers – no matters their zip code – should have cutting edge broadband and digital technology to diagnose and treat patients,” said Jonathan Spalter, US Telecom CEO.

“We are very pleased to see growing bipartisan support for legislation that addresses the urgent need to increase broadband capacity at both rural clinics and urban hospitals,” said John Windhausen, executive director of the Schools, Health and Libraries Broadband Coalition.

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Congress

Sen. John Thune Launches Broadband Oversight Effort

Thune distributed a letter dated Tuesday seeking stakeholder input.

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Photo of Sen. John Thune, R-S.D., in February 2011 by Gage Skidmore used with permission

WASHINGTON, December 6, 2022 – Sen. John Thune, R-S.D., announced Tuesday that he will conduct a review of federal broadband programs, becoming the latest Republican lawmaker to pledge to turn up congressional scrutiny of telecommunications officials.

Thune distributed a letter dated Tuesday seeking stakeholder input on the National Telecommunications and Information Administration’s stewardship of the $42.5 billion Broadband Equity, Access, and Deployment fund, policies related to the Infrastructure, Investment and Jobs Act, and several “general broadband issues.”

In the letter, Thune probed several traditional conservative policy points, questioning federal guidelines that allegedly run afoul of technological neutrality or favor municipal networks, union workers, or domestic manufacturers.

“In order to ensure rural communities have access to these services, it is critical for federal agencies to efficiently spend funds on the areas that need it the most,” Thune said in a statement. “Every federal dollar that has been spent should go toward the stated purpose of expanding connectivity to truly unserved areas.

“Congressional oversight has been noticeably absent in these areas, and there is serious concern that the federal government would repeat previous mistakes where agencies’ gross mismanagement of broadband funds fell on the backs of taxpayers across the country,” he added.

Thune cited a U.S. Government Accountability Office report from May 2022 that concluded, “The U.S. broadband efforts are not guided by a national strategy with clear roles, goals, objectives, and performance measures.” The report discovered more than 100 individual programs supervised by 15 agencies.

The report further found that many programs have overlapping purposes and many attempts to harmonize them are corralled by statute. Without congressional action, it said, federal efforts cannot be “fully coordinated.”

A more recent GAO report released publicly on Wednesday found the U.S. Department of Agriculture had not, “set specific goals for what it wants [ReConnect broadband program] to achieve or for how it will measure how well the program is working.” The report also urged the agency to strengthen its anti-fraud protocols.

Thune last week introduced the Rural Internet Improvement Act, which would streamline the Department of Agriculture’s broadband initiatives and limit the use of the USDA’s ReConnect funds to acutely unserved areas.

This fall, the GOP have made clear its intention to heighten scrutiny of broadband administrators. Rep. Glenn Thompson, R-Penn., in September told Broadband Breakfast that he planned to subpoena the Federal Communications Commission and the National Telecommunications and Information Administration to testify before the House Agriculture committee after the two agencies declined to appear at a hearing on the 2023 farm bill.

Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers, R-Wash., that same month requested a list of all pending and expected FCC rulemakings, alleging a history of extra-statutory rulemakings. In November, McMorris Rodgers staffers re-emphasized the congresswoman’s commitment to oversight.

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Congress

Congress Working to Enact Permitting Reforms for Broadband

‘Red tape really does have the possibility to kill project,’ argued a House subcommittee chief counsel.

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Photo of Kate O'Connor from LinkedIn.

WASHINGTON, November 2, 2022 – Congress is advancing a series of proposals to reform broadband permitting, which include the elimination of unnecessary historical and environmental reviews and streamlining the process to deploy broadband on federal lands, staffers from the House Energy and Commerce Committee said on Wednesday.

Speaking at a Fiber Broadband Association web event, Evan Viau, a staff member for the Subcommittee on Communications and Technology, said the House is working to generally liberalize the permitting process for new deployments and upgrades to existing infrastructure as well.

“Red tape really does have the possibility to kill project,” argued Kate O’Connor, chief counsel for the Subcommittee on Communications and Technology.

“$42 billion (from the Broadband Equity, Access, and Deployment program) seems like a lot of money…but if we don’t change all of the processes that allow that $42 billion to actually get spent to deploy this infrastructure, it could all be wasted,” she added.

O’Connor called for an “all-hands approach” to permitting reform, saying the federal government should encourage such reforms at the state and local levels, as well.

In 2021, the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act allocated $65 billion to broadband funding – America’s largest investment in connectivity to date. The IIJA followed the American Rescue Plan Act, passed earlier that year, which also provided money for broadband to the states.

Republicans plan to oversee federal agencies

In addition to permitting reform, agency oversight is a top priority of Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers, R–Wash., ranking member of the Energy and Commerce Committee, O’Connor said. In September, McMorris Rodgers warned Federal Communications Commission Chairwoman Jessica Rosenworcel against acting beyond the statutory limits of the Commission’s authority.

And McMorris Rodgers isn’t the only high-ranking Republican with the oversight itch. In September, Rep. Glenn Thompson, R–Penn., ranking member of the House Agriculture Committee, told Broadband Breakfast he would likely issue subpoenas to the FCC and the National Telecommunications and Information Administration following the agencies’ refusal to testify at a hearing.  

Should the GOP retake the house in the November midterms, McMorris Rodgers, Thompson, and other Republicans will be better positioned to take action against President Joe Biden’s executive agencies.

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Senate

National 6G Strategy Bill Passes Senate Commerce Committee

The Next Generation Telecommunications Act received bipartisan support.

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Photo of Sen. Catherine Cortez Masto by Senate Democrats, via Wikimedia

WASHINGTON, March 22, 2022 – Legislation that would create a council to advise Congress on 6G and other wireless technologies and how they may power smart cities on Tuesday passed the Senate’s Commerce, Science and Transportation committee with bipartisan support.

In addition to advising Congress on the state of technology in the telecommunications industry, the council would also develop a comprehensive, national telecom strategy, which will address topics related to technology, workforce demands and security.

The bill, Next Generation Telecommunications Act, S.3014,was introduced by Sen. Catherine Cortez Masto, D-Nev., who said in a press release that the legislation is a key part of her state’s goal of being “on the cutting edge of new technologies.

“We’ve got to promote American competitiveness in these kind of cutting-edge technologies that we’re building in Nevada,” Cortze Masto said in a statement on the bill. “That means improving access to quality broadband, ensuring we have the necessary workforce, and putting in safeguards to make sure we protect emerging technologies.”

The council would be comprised of 15 members including the deputy secretary of Commerce, the assistant secretary of Commerce for Communications and Information, the undersecretary of the National Institute of Standards, the chairperson of the Federal Communications Commission, and the director of the National Science Foundation.

The council would also feature three members appointed by the majority leader of the Senate, two members appointed by the minority leader of the Senate, three members appointed by the Speaker of the House, and two members appointed by the minority leader of the House.

The bill has received notable bipartisan support: it is co-sponsored by two Republicans and two additional Democrats, including Sen. Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., and Sen. Ben Luján, D-N.M.

“As China and other countries seek to exploit communications networks for surveillance and intellectual property theft, the U.S. needs a cohesive strategy for the safe deployment of next-generation wireless technologies,” said Sen. Roger Wicker, R-Miss.

South Dakota senator and Senate Republican minority whip John Thune also came out in support of the bill. “This bill would allow the United States to continue competing on the global stage, and it would help prepare the United States to lead the way in deploying next-generation technology, including 6G. I’ll continue to work on bipartisan solutions that will increase innovation and bolster the private sector’s ability to compete in this emerging space.”

The bill must now get through a general vote in the Senate, at which point it will need to also pass the House.

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