Introducing Your Senate Commerce Committee
Friday, February 10, 2023
Introducing Your Senate Commerce Committee
You’re reading the Benton Institute for Broadband & Society’s Weekly Digest, a recap of the biggest (or most overlooked) broadband stories of the week. The digest is delivered via e-mail each Friday.
Round-Up for the Week of February 6-10, 2023
One of the oldest standing legislative committees in the U.S. Senate, the Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation has jurisdiction over communications, interstate commerce, science, and technology policy. In the Senate, Commerce is the main committee concerned with universal broadband.
Concerning connectivity, the committee had many accomplishments over the past two years including:
Connecting Rural America: A $42.5 billion investment—the single largest broadband investment in U.S. history—to connect rural America through the Broadband Equity, Access and Deployment (BEAD) program included in the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act.
Closing the Digital Divide: Securing funding through the $2.75 billion Digital Equity Act that can be used for devices to ensure everyone has access to the education, jobs and opportunities available online, no matter where they live or their socioeconomic background.
Connecting Tribes: Adding $2 billion for the Tribal Broadband Connectivity Program to help Tribal governments with broadband deployment, telehealth, distance learning, affordability and digital inclusion.
Building Resilient and Redundant Networks: Creating the Enabling Middle Mile Broadband Infrastructure Program, funded with $1 billion, to link homes and businesses to the internet and reduce the cost of high-speed internet to unserved and underserved communities.
Creating Affordable Options: Making low-cost broadband service available to low-income households by securing $14.2 billion for the Affordable Connectivity Program (ACP), which provides low-income households up to $30 per month toward internet service and up to $75 a month for households on Tribal lands.
Ensuring Access to Reasonable Prison Pay Phone Rates: the Martha Wright-Reed Just and Reasonable Communications Act empowers the Federal Communications Commission to directly regulate rates for telephone and video calls in correctional and detention facilities to ensure they are just and reasonable.
Mapping & Maternal Health: the Data Mapping to Save Moms’ Lives Act will make sure data on maternal health can be included in analyzing broadband and health data at national, state and county levels.
Protecting Survivors of Domestic Violence: the Safe Connections Act helps survivors of domestic violence and other crimes cut ties with their abusers and separate from shared wireless service plans, which can be exploited to monitor, stalk or control victims.
The Senate Commerce Committee convened this week for the first time in the 118th Congress. The committee is tasked with oversight of the broadband programs included in the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act and other legislation aimed at addressing the digital divide during the COVID-19 pandemic. Following the 2022 elections, there are a few changes in the committee's leadership and membership.
“Broadband is a necessity. Without it, kids didn’t have high-speed internet to do their homework and entrepreneurs were unable to start online businesses or even develop a basic web presence. Everyone should have universal access to high-speed internet, no matter where they live.” –Sen. Cantwell
Sen. Maria Cantwell (D-WA) returns as committee chair and promises to make sure that the historic $65 billion investment in broadband included in the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act goes to communities that need it most. In July 2022, Sen. Cantwell co-sponsored the Net Neutrality and Broadband Justice Act, legislation that would classify broadband internet access as a telecommunications service under Title II of the Communications Act, giving the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) the appropriate authority to reinstate net neutrality protections. In August 2022, Sen. Cantwell introduced the Grant to Rapidly Invest and Deploy Broadband, or GRID Broadband Act, a proposal that would provide a new federal cost-share to spur investment in a nationwide middle-mile backbone along the nation’s existing electricity grid.
Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-MN) co-chairs the Senate Broadband Caucus and has long sought to close the digital divide and expand access to the internet. She has championed a number of broadband proposals that eventually became law including the Broadband Interagency Coordination Act, the Connecting Minority Communities Pilot Program, and comprehensive bicameral broadband infrastructure legislation. In 2022, Sen Klobuchar co-sponsored the Rural Broadband Protection Act, which would require the FCC to establish a more thorough vetting process to ensure that providers applying for federal funding are capable of delivering reliable broadband access to underserved, rural communities.
Sen. Brian Schatz (D-HI) is the former chair of the Commerce Committee's Subcommittee on Communications, Technology, Innovation, and the Internet and he is very active in the connectivity space. He's proposed redirecting the proceeds from spectrum auctions into a fund for rural broadband deployment, expanding telehealth services, and increasing funding for the FCC's Rural Health Care program. In July 2022, Sen Schatz led a group of 12 senators who called on the Department of Justice to ensure that the Americans with Disabilities Act applies to internet access and use. The senators asked the DOJ to restart a rulemaking process under the ADA to establish new protections specific to the internet for those with disabilities. The proposed rulemaking process was started by the Obama administration in 2010 but was not completed. The Trump administration subsequently withdrew the proposal.
Sen. Ed Markey (D-MA) is a longtime Member of Congress and advocate for universal broadband. Then-Rep Markey was the architect of many provisions of the Telecommunications Act of 1996 and a key player in making sure every school and library in the U.S. could afford internet access. In December 2022, Sen. Markey sought additional funding for the Emergency Connectivity Fund (ECF) which has helped more than 15 million students and educators connect to the internet at home. "Although Congress created the ECF program to ensure students and educators were connected to the internet during the pandemic, the program remains essential even as students return to a physical classroom," Markey said.
Sen. Gary Peters (D-MI) saw 19 of his bills pass and get signed into law last Congress, the most for an individual senator going back 42 years, according to his office and information from the Congressional Research Service and the Senate Historical Office. He was also a cosponsor of the Broadband Deployment Accuracy and Technological Availability (DATA) Act which became law in March 2020. The law requires the FCC to improve the accuracy of its broadband availability map—and the legislation led to the new national broadband map released in November 2022. Sen. Peters chairs the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee where one of his top priorities is cybersecurity.
In the last Congress, Sen. Tammy Baldwin (D-WI) helped to secure billions of dollars in funding for jobs and infrastructure for her Wisconsin constituents, as well as health care improvements and civil rights protections. She backed the $280 billion CHIPS and Science Act, lowering consumer costs and boosting supply chains by investing in domestic manufacturing of microchips and in other science and technology efforts. She supported the Inflation Reduction Act, which will provide $369 billion in clean energy and climate change mitigation. An estimated 29,000 Wisconsin residents will be able to keep their health insurance because of the law’s $64 billion in funding to extend health insurance subsidies for three years. Sen. Baldwin also co-authored the Respect for Marriage Act, signed by President Joe Biden on Dec. 13, which explicitly protects same-sex and interracial marriages. "In the Senate, this bipartisan vote simply would not have happened without the leadership and persistence of a real hero: Tammy Baldwin," President Biden said during the signing ceremony. In the previous Congress, Baldwin, who sits on the Senate Appropriations Committee, worked to include a number of measures in the Consolidated Appropriations Act to expand broadband and internet access for rural and underserved communities. Her efforts helped secure the emergency broadband benefit for low-income consumers, establish the Office of Internet Connectivity and Growth at the NTIA, and better coordinate distribution of federal funds for broadband deployment.
Sen. Tammy Duckworth (D-IL) championed the Martha Wright-Reed Just and Reasonable Communications Act, which clarifies the FCC's authority to regulate intrastate phone rates and charges in correctional facilities to ensure they are just and reasonable. The law will help families keep in touch with their incarcerated family members, which studies have shown can help reduce recidivism rates and thereby save taxpayer dollars.
Sen. Jon Tester (D-MT) was part of a bipartisan group of senators who hammered out the details of the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act. Joining President Biden at the White House for the signing of a $1.2 trillion infrastructure bill, Sen. Tester said it was "one of the best days I've had in Washington, DC.” He predicted the bill has enough money to expand access to high-speed Internet into “every corner of the state.” Montana is rated as one of the worst for broadband access. A noted critic of FCC broadband availability maps, Sen. Tester backed the passage of the Broadband DATA Act. After the bill became law in March 2020, Sen Tester called for it to be implemented before the FCC moved ahead with the Rural Digital Opportunity Fund saying that doing so without the information the Broadband DATA Act will provide would result in continued gaps in broadband coverage for rural Montana communities. Given how the FCC ended up using the rural fund to subsidize broadband service in urban areas, Sen. Tester was right.
“One of my top priorities in the Senate has been to help bridge the digital divide and deliver high-speed internet to the communities of Nevada and across our nation that have gone without it for far too long,” Sen. Jacky Rosen (D-NV) recently said. She was an author of the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act as well as the Data Mapping to Protect Moms Lives Act which will locate areas where there is both a lack of access to broadband and high maternal mortality rates to see where investment in programs such as telehealth would be most effective for expectant mothers seeking care at home.
Sen. Ben Ray Lujan (D-NM) chairs the Subcommittee on Communications, Media, and Broadband. Last year, he convened a subcommittee hearing saying it is time to put to work the resources Congress created in the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act to close the digital divide. He stressed the importance of state, local and tribal communities having access to these resources so they can help ensure everyone can be connected to broadband services. Chair Luján said resources should flow to where they are needed most and noted that the history of redlining in the housing and banking industries can be seen today in the communities suffering because of digital redlining. It is imperative, said Chairman Luján, that the FCC adopt rules that eliminate digital discrimination. The federal resources available now for broadband should not reinforce existing inequities. Luján has introduced legislation that would prohibit predatory data caps that force families to pay high costs and unnecessary fees to access high-speed broadband. He's also championed legislation, the Digital Equity Foundation Act of 2022, that would establish a nonprofit foundation to leverage public and private investments to make progress closing the divides on digital equity, digital inclusion, and digital literacy. In December 2022, Sen. Luján led a letter to the Secretaries of the Departments of Interior, Agriculture, and Commerce calling on the Biden administration to streamline the permitting process, close the digital divide, and expand high-speed internet in rural areas across the country.
Sen. John Hickenlooper (D-CO) was part of the group of 22 senators who negotiated and wrote the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act. In October 2022, he joined a bipartisan group of their colleagues to push the FCC to increase broadband speed requirements in its existing programs so that Americans, particularly in rural and underserved areas, can access the faster download and upload speeds needed to participate in modern telehealth, telework, and remote learning. “Without agency action, the FCC risks leaving Americans in rural areas behind. We respectfully urge the FCC to take action to enhance these programs as soon as possible. Doing so will position the FCC to better respond to the needs of our constituents living and working in rural high-cost areas.” wrote the senators.
"Broadband is a utility just like electricity or water," said Sen. Raphael Warnock (D-GA) said in 2021. He has championed the federal dollars flowing to Georgia to improve broadband's reach and affordability. In November 2021, Sen. Warnock welcomed FCC Chairwoman Jessica Rosenworcel to a roundtable discussion with electric co-op leaders. He described the struggles people in rural Georgia face without reliable high-speed internet access and expressed hope that solutions may be at hand. "Everyone needs reliable access to the internet for their jobs, their companies and to live their lives," Sen. Warnock said.
Sen. Peter Welch (D-VT) joins the committee after many years on the House Subcommittee on Communications and Technology. He was also co-chair of the House Rural Broadband Caucus. In August 2022, was a cosponsor of the bipartisan Proper Leadership to Align Networks (PLAN) for Broadband Act. The legislation would require the President to develop a national strategy to close the digital divide and a plan to implement that strategy. “Vermont has been a leader in coordinating statewide broadband deployment, and the PLAN for Broadband Act will bring some of those same strategies that have worked for Vermonters to the federal level to help ensure that every American can access the high-speed broadband they need to thrive,” then-Rep. Welch said.
At a hearing last December, Sen. Kyrsten Sinema (I-AZ) called on Congress to work with stakeholders across the country to implement the bipartisan Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act’s historic investments in broadband deployment, affordability, accessibility, and digital inclusion to ensure all Arizonans have high-speed broadband. She questioned witnesses about streamlining permitting approvals by federal agencies like the Bureau of Land Management and the U.S. Forest Service to expedite broadband deployment projects, which can currently take years to approve. Sen. Sinema also emphasized the importance of the Tribal Broadband Connectivity Program, which the infrastructure law bolsters to help ensure more tribal communities have fast, affordable broadband access. In September 2022, she joined a bipartisan group of senators urging Senate leaders of both parties to strengthen the Secure and Trusted Communications Networks Reimbursement Program protecting critical infrastructure from unsecure broadband connections.
Sen. Rafael Edward "Ted" Cruz (R-TX) is the new Ranking Member of the committee. In January 2023, he introduced two bills aimed at streamlining and expediting federal permitting for major infrastructure projects by putting more stringent timetables for federal agencies and courts to review projects. The first bill, the Federal Permitting Modernization Act (FAST Act), would require federal agencies to reform and prioritize federal approvals by requiring strict timelines: 5 days for federal agencies to notify the public of the project by publishing details in the Federal Register; 30 days to publish those environmental documents for review; 60 days for the public to comment on those documents; and a final 30 days to approve or disapprove the project based on that information and feedback. The second bill, the 90-day Review Act, would substantially shorten the timetable to file a petition for judicial review of a permit, license, or approval of a major infrastructure project from 150 days to 90 days.
Sen. John Thune (R-SD) is a former Commerce Committee chairman and the current Ranking Member of the Subcommittee on Communications, Media, and Broadband. Last December, Sen Thune launched a nationwide oversight effort that will review numerous broadband programs spanning several federal agencies. The primary goal of Thune’s effort is to hold these agencies accountable and ensure that previously authorized broadband funding is being used in the most efficient way possible to protect taxpayer dollars. He also called out U.S. Department of Commerce Inspector General Peggy Gustafson for failing to fulfill mandated congressional oversight of previously authorized broadband funding. Sens. Thune and Cruz also recently criticized the FCC's Affordable Connectivity Program for being "subject to massive waste, fraud, and abuse of taxpayer dollars" (although a recent Government Accountability Office report found no such waste in the program). Sen Thune also introduced the bipartisan Rural Internet Improvement Act this year. The bill would streamline and bolster U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) Rural Development broadband programs and ensure that their funding is being targeted to rural areas that need it the most.
Sen Roger Wicker (R-MS) formerly served as chairman and ranking member of the committee. He was a primary sponsor of the Broadband Deployment Accuracy and Technological Availability (DATA) Act. In the past year, he has been very concerned about the administration of broadband programs. He has 1) asked the Pandemic Response Accountability Committee to guide the independent Inspector General reviews necessary to ensure the federal funds allocated for broadband deployment are spent as Congress intended, 2) raised concerns regarding broadband infrastructure funding through the Coronavirus State and Local Recovery Funds, and 3) urged Mitch Landrieu, Senior Advisor to President Biden for Infrastructure Coordination, to work with states and localities to promote more streamlined permitting processes in advance of the distribution of more than $42 billion in grants for broadband deployment.
Expanding broadband access and improving government coordination of its broadband deployment investments are key priorities for Sen. Deb Fischer (R-NE). She voted for the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act and helped add a provision to the legislation to enhance coordination of the federal government’s broadband buildout programs. Sen. Fisher also worked closely with Sen. Rosen on the Data Mapping to Save Moms’ Lives Act.
This week Sen. Jerry Moran (R-KS) joined Sen. Mark Warner (D-VA) and other Members of Congress in introducing the Broadband Grant Tax Treatment Act. The legislation would amend the Internal Revenue Code to ensure that funding for broadband deployment from the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act and the American Rescue Plan Act will not be considered taxable income. Grants awarded for the purposes of broadband deployment are currently factored into a company’s income and are subject to taxation. This bipartisan, bicameral legislation moves to exclude broadband deployment grants awarded through the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act, the American Rescue Plan Act, and Tribal Broadband Connectivity Fund from an organization’s income, ensuring the entirety of federal dollars awarded to companies for the purpose of deploying broadband around the country can be used wholly for that purpose, rather than making their way back to the government through taxes.
Alaska has much less broadband connectivity than any other state, Sen. Dan Sullivan (R-AK) said in explaining "difficult" vote to support the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act which contained "historic funding for broadband build-out" in the state. I the past he's noted how high-speed internet access can be “life-changing,” particularly for rural Alaska residents without access to other communications infrastructure. In August 2022, Sen. Sullivan hosted the Alaska Broadband Summit. He said, "We must be ready as a state to take advantage of this historical funding" and he urged stakeholders to work together to secure the funding and not let it go to waste.
"Every Tennessean should have access to broadband, regardless of zip code," said Sen. Marsha Blackburn (R-TN) last year. "As a member of the Senate Commerce Committee, I have worked to remove federal barriers and encourage private investment to expand broadband networks in rural communities." In 2019, she cosponsored the Internet Exchange Act, which she said would make sure that communities without access to broadband are able to build and maintain the infrastructure needed to support high-speed internet connections.
In 2022, Sen Todd Young (R-IN) introduced the Broadband Buildout Accountability Act, a bill that would remove NTIA's Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) exemption and require proof of how the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act's $42 billion for broadband programs is spent to ensure taxpayer dollars are not misused.
Ted Budd (R-NC) is new to the Senate this year after representing North Carolina's 13th congressional district from 2017 to 2022. In a 2021 op-ed he argued that, yes, broadband is infrastructure and the government should encourage private investment in deploying networks to rural areas. But as a Member of Congress, Budd voted against both the American Rescue Plan Act and the Infrastructure Investment Act.
Like Budd, Eric Schmitt (R-MO) is new to the Senate having served as Missouri Attorney General. During the 2022 election, he often chastised federal spending.
Sen. J. D. Vance, (R-OH) is also new to the Senate. This week, a representative from his office said Vance hopes to tackle issues such as infrastructure, broadband access and more for his constituents, especially in Appalachia. “In ignorance or purposefully, the FCC’s mapping data is grossly inaccurate,” the representative said. “A man named Ryan (Collins) from Buckeye Hills (Regional Council) showed me the data that the FCC uses to map out everything. It shows that in Southeast Ohio, the broadband connection is really good. It’s good enough that it’s ineligible for federal grant money to improve it. But if you look at third party data, specifically from Hulu speed testing, it shows that, not only just the southeast, but the vast majority of the State of Ohio outside of the three Cs (Cincinnati, Columbus and Cleveland) has such poor broadband that it should be eligible for federal grant money.”
Sen. Shelley Moore Capito (R-WV) is a longtime universal broadband advocate as well as the new vice chair of the Senate Republican Conference, the leadership team for Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY). Sen. Capito was a key negotiator on the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act and the West Virginia Department of Economic Development is already using funding for broadband expansion projects. In fact, West Virginia has access to more than $1 billion in broadband expansion funding, including $136 million for the state from the bipartisan infrastructure law. But Sen Capito remains concerned about making sure that funding expands broadband to communities that are either unserved or underserved.
"Unreliable broadband and limited transportation options are two of the biggest impediments to economic growth and diversity in Wyoming," said Sen. Cynthia Lummis (R-WY). "On the Commerce Committee, I will continue to work to expand rural broadband and address transportation needs for communities and small businesses throughout the state of Wyoming."
- Unserved and Underserved is a distinction without a difference (Mike Conlow)
- Making Internet for All Right Here in America (NTIA)
- Bipartisan Legislation to Prevent Taxation of Broadband Grants Reintroduced in the Senate, House (US Senate)
- Governor Ron DeSantis (R-FL) Announces First Awards Through Broadband Opportunity Program
- South Carolina Broadband Office Announces $132.8 Million ARPA Investment
Weekend Reads (resist tl;dr)
- Authorization and Oversight Plan of the Commerce Committee of the US House of Representatives, 118th Congress (House Commerce Committee)
- Closing the Digital Skills Divide: The Payoff for Workers, Business, and the Economy (Federal Reserve Bank of Atlanta)
- A Handbook for the Effective Administration of State and Local Digital Equity Programs (Vernonburg Group)
- BEAD Program: A Framework to Allocate Funding for Broadband Availability - Version 2.0 (ACA Connects)
ICYMI from Benton
- Bringing Online Opportunities to Texans With Broadband—And Federal Funding
- Federal Funding Fuels Nevada's Broadband Initiative
- Better Internet for a Better Kentucky
- Connect Alabama Gets Help From Capital Projects Fund
Feb 13—NACo Broadband Local Coordination Summit (National Association of Counties)
Feb 14—Gigi Sohn Nomination Hearing (Senate Commerce Committee)
Feb 14—Gonzalez v. Google and the fate of Section 230 (Brookings)
Feb 15—FirstNet Board Meeting (NTIA)
Feb 15—Little Nuggets of Tech and Telecom: All Things Mobile (Georgetown)
Feb 15—The Fight for a Future Free of Digital Redlining (Belfer Center)
Feb 15—Chicago Digital Equity Plan Virtual Launch Event (City of Chicago)
Feb 15—Get a BEAD on Broadband Funding (telecompetitor)
Feb 15—BEAD Matching Funds Deep Dive (Fiber Broadband Association)
Feb 16—February 2023 Open Federal Communications Commission Meeting
Feb 16—Mark your calendars: What's happening in broadband over the next two years
Feb 27—FCC Tribal Workshop
Mar 6—State of the Net 2023 (Internet Education Foundation)
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