Congress is angling to impose some training wheels on the Trump administration when it comes to spending taxpayer dollars on broadband deployment. Lawmakers are eyeing the reconciliation process for the farm bill as a way to check the Agriculture Department, which manages various telecom subsidies through its Rural Utilities Service (RUS). “Appropriate guidance in the farm bill being reconciled and the department’s continued vigilance are critical to avoiding another boondoggle,” said a Senate GOP aide, referring to past alleged waste in the program.
Anxiety is rising among Democrats as President Joe Biden marks nearly nine months in office without naming anyone to serve on the Federal Communications Commission — a lapse that could soon put Republicans in the majority at the agency. It also puts Biden’s broadband goals at risk, his party says. Congressional Democrats have been sounding the alarm for months, fearing a squandered year on the president’s progressive priorities, such as reinstating net neutrality rules and demanding greater transparency on internet billing.
Duane Stanley, an official with the North Dakota Attorney General’s Office, is the latest to sound the alarm about a wireless industry plan to sunset its legacy 3G network in the coming months.
Acting Federal Communications Chairwoman Jessica Rosenworcel said she’s pleased that the Senate infrastructure deal would codify the pandemic relief program known as the Emergency Broadband Benefit — but she is wary about one provision that would slash the monthly internet subsidy by 40 percent. “I do think it would be challenging for the agency to reduce the support from $50 a month to $30 a month,” she said.
Gayle Manchin, the wife of Sen Joe Manchin (D-WV) and federal co-chair of the Appalachian Regional Commission, is planning to make broadband connectivity a central pillar of her remit and is already talking to many of the region’s governors about working as a bloc. “I would like to see the 13 governors that are a part of this region actually come together and work on this as a unit,” said Manchin. “There’s power in numbers.” She suggested these 13 governors would have leverage if they went right to cable providers to ask for better connectivity.
A glimpse into how Senate negotiators may structure the $65 billion in broadband investments the infrastructure package would provide. The draft is likely to fuel renewed advocacy from consumer groups and anyone else hoping for ultra-fast fiber optic buildout, as it instead opts for lower minimum broadband speed thresholds (100 Megabits per second download over 20 Mbps upload would count as "underserved" for the $40 billion tentatively slated to go to the Commerce Department’s state grants, less than the fiber-focused minimums some Democrats wanted).
Wireless Infrastructure Association CEO Jonathan Adelstein is feeling “very encouraged” by recent Capitol Hill machinations over how to structure the $65 billion chunk of the bipartisan infrastructure deal intended to close the digital divide. He cited recent rumblings that lawmakers may ultimately opt for lower minimum internet speed requirements than what Democrats had previously hoped for.
For decades, policymakers in Washington and state capitals have fretted about the patchwork of broadband access in the United States, which has held back economic development in underserved areas and became a major problem during the pandemic. Now, after years of federal subsidies that have improved but not solved the problem, the Biden administration is proposing to spend $100 billion over the next eight years to finally connect every American household to high-speed internet. But solving the problem isn’t just a matter of cutting a big check to fund the installation of fiber pipelines.
Former Federal Communications Commissioner Mignon Clyburn and INCOMPAS CEO Chip Pickering are launching a new coalition, BroadLand, urging Congress to demand faster internet speeds as part of any multibillion-dollar broadband infrastructure initiatives. The floor should be at least 100 megabits per second for both downloads and uploads, the group says. Those speeds may sound awesome to anyone who’s tried to stream Netflix movies at home while roommates or family members conference over Zoom or attend virtual classes.
The Biden administration and California attorney general’s office are now trying to hash out how to resolve lingering uncertainty about the operation of a telehealth app called VA Video Connect. The federal Veterans Affairs Department raised concerns about the app’s future because wireless carriers subsidize its data usage costs for veterans in ways that a new California net neutrality law forbids (a situation, ISPs say, that could imperil offerings beyond just California).