Meet the New Congress

Benton Institute for Broadband & Society

Friday, February 5, 2021

Weekly Digest

Meet the New Congress: Part 1 - The House

 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 1-5, 2021

Kevin Taglang

A key goal for President Joe Biden is to expand broadband access to everyone in America. Since at least November, he's been laying the groundwork with Congressional Democrats to increase federal broadband spending to improve both access and affordability so people stay online during the pandemic in the short term — and to help rebuild the nation's economy going forward. Key panels in each chamber of Congress will likely play an important role in shaping any legislative efforts. As the new Congress gets organized and working, we look at the membership of the House Subcommittee on Communications and Technology. [Next, we'll look at the Senate Commerce Committee.]

The oldest standing committee in the U.S. House of Representatives, the Commerce Committee has perhaps the broadest jurisdiction of any Congressional committee. During the 177th Congress, the committee will again be chaired by Rep. Frank Pallone, Jr. (D-NJ). Rebuilding and modernizing the nation's infrastructure, including broadband, is one of his top priorities this year. The committee's ranking Republican is Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers (R-WA-05). She recently proposed the Big Tech Accountability Platform, which would sunset or establish a reauthorization date for Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act, the liability shield for online content posted by website users.

The Commerce Committee's Subcommittee on Communications and Technology alone has jurisdiction over electronic communications (both Interstate and foreign), including voice, video, audio, broadband, and data, whether transmitted by wire or wirelessly, and whether transmitted by telecommunications, commercial or private mobile service, broadcast, cable, satellite, microwave, or other any other mode; technology generally; spectrum and federal and commercial spectrum management; emergency and public safety communications; cybersecurity; Internet and interactive computer service liability protection ("Section 230" in popular parlance); communications privacy and data security; the Federal Communications Commission; and the National Telecommunications and Information Administration.

In the 117th Congress, the subcommittee will be comprised of 18 Democrats and 14 Republicans. Below we look briefly at their broadband priorities.

Rep. Mike Doyle (D-PA)

Rep. Mike Doyle (D-PA-18) returns as the chair of the subcommittee; he first took the gavel in January 2019. Just last month, Chairman Doyle joined full committee chair Frank Pallone (D-NJ) and Rep. Jerry McNerney (D-CA) in questioning broadband service providers about raising prices and imposing data caps during the COVID-19 pandemic. Chairman Doyle has also led Congressional efforts to reinstate the Federal Communications Commission's network neutrality protections and cosponsored the  Accessible, Affordable Internet for All Act, which would invest $100 billion in broadband. During a September 2020 hearing, Chairman Doyle was very critical of the FCC's response to the pandemic. He said low-income students are struggling to learn as what was once a homework gap becomes a schooling gap. A lack of broadband is no longer just preventing them from doing homework, he explained, it was preventing them from accessing their education altogether. The congressman said it was unacceptable that some schools are hosting fundraisers and asking charities or corporations for help. “We cannot depend, as a nation, on the generosity of private companies to get us through this crisis,” Chairman Doyle said.

In March 2020, Rep. Jerry McNerney (D-CA-09) led a letter to nine major communications providers asking them to outline any potential plans they are considering implementing to address connectivity challenges related to COVID-19, particularly for individuals who are impacted by the digital divide. In 2019, Rep McNerney cosponsored the Digital Equity Act which would:

  • Create the State Digital Equity Capacity Program, an annual $125 million formula grant program for all 50 states, the District of Columbia, and Puerto Rico to fund the creation and implementation of comprehensive digital equity plans in each state.
  • Create an annual $125 million Digital Equity Competitive Grant Program to support digital inclusion projects undertaken by individual organizations and communities.
  • Task the National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA) with evaluating digital inclusion projects and providing policymakers at the local, state, and federal levels with detailed information about which projects are most effective.

Rep Yvette Clarke (D-NY-09) has forwarded legislation that would require the Comptroller General of the U.S. Government to conduct an analysis of high-speed internet connectivity in federally-assisted housing and the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) to conduct a masterplan for achieving the necessary retrofitting across federal housing stock to support broadband service. Rep. Clark has also been vocal about the importance of diversity for executive branch roles in science, technology, and telecommunications, where women and people of color have historically struggled to gain broad representation.

As House Democrats crafted 202's HEROES Act, Rep. Marc Veasey (D-TX-33) led efforts to include a provision to provide free or low-cost internet service and connected devices to low-income individuals or those who have recently been laid off or furloughed due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Aspects of Veasey's legislative language became law in late 2020 and the FCC is currently creating the Emergency Broadband Benefit Program to subsidize monthly broadband bills and provide discounted devices. The House also passed Veasey's MEDIA Diversity Act which would require the FCC to consider market entry barriers for women and minorities in its communications marketplace report. (The bill did not advance through the Senate.)

Before the coronavirus pandemic, Rep. Donald McEachin (D-VA-04) co-hosted a Conversation on Rural Broadband with FCC Commissioner Geoffrey Starks, local officials, community leaders, and broadband advocates to discuss federal solutions to barriers expanding broadband access to unserved areas. The roundtable centered on the critical importance of access to high-speed internet and provided participants with the opportunity to voice their concerns and connect on solutions to mitigate communities’ lack of access. Just a week earlier, Rep. McEachin had joined colleagues in a letter to FCC Chairman Pai outlining their concerns that last-minute language changes to the commission’s Rural Digital Opportunity Fund Order might inadvertently undermine the ability of states, including Virginia, to effectively provide their residents with accessible, reliable broadband infrastructure. 

Rep. Darren Soto (D-FL-09) has cosponsored legislation to establish the Office of Rural Broadband Initiatives within the Department of Agriculture to administer all rural broadband-related grant and loan programs currently administered by the Rural Utilities Service, conduct specified outreach and coordination activities, and conduct and release to the public an inventory of federal and state property on which a broadband facility could be constructed.

"I’m devoted to expanding broadband access," Rep Tom O'Halleran (D-AZ-01) said recently, "connecting more families and business to resources, school, work, and telehealth.” Broadband was a key issue in O'Halleran's reelection. In August, Rep. O'Halleran cosponsored the Rural Connectivity Advancement Program Act with Rep. Bob Latta (R-OH), a bill that would have facilitated broadband buildout in rural communities by capturing a portion of the proceeds from spectrum auctions conducted by the FCC through Sept. 30, 2022. Rep. O'Halleran also co-sponsored a bipartisan bill with Rep. Bill Johnson (R-OH); the Broadband Adoption and Opportunity Act would have leveraged public-private partnerships to refurbish internet-capable devices for students and underserved families through donation, lending, or low-cost purchasing programs. Back in 2017, Rep. O'Halleran introduced the Rural Broadband Expansion Act which would have authorized $100 million in new grant funding to expand broadband in rural areas throughout the country. He also co-sponsored legislation to assist Indian tribes in maintaining, expanding, and deploying broadband systems.

Rep. Kathleen Rice (D-NY-04) is a new member of the subcommittee. She's generally known for her interest in climate change and infrastructure. Her appointment to the House Commerce Committee had some drama behind it.

To give her career full credit, we might write a separate 5-page article on Rep. Anna Eshoo (D-CA-18) and her impact on broadband policy. To just highlight some recent priorities: Rep. Eshoo introduced the National Broadband Plan for the Future Act, legislation that instructs the FCC to update the National Broadband Plan to expand internet access across the U.S. and study how the coronavirus pandemic has changed the online lives of Americans. In January 2021, Rep. Eshoo and 13 members of California’s congressional delegation sent a letter to Attorney General-designate Merrick Garland urging him to withdraw the U.S. federal government’s lawsuit against the State of California over its net neutrality law as one of the first actions of the Biden administration. Chairwoman of the Health Subcommittee, Rep. Eshoo teamed with Rep. Don Young (R-AK) on the Healthcare Broadband Expansion During COVID-19 Act, a bipartisan bill to provide $2 billion to expand telehealth and high-quality internet connectivity at public and nonprofit healthcare facilities, including mobile clinics and temporary health facilities deployed to respond to the coronavirus pandemic.

G.K. Butterfield (D-NC-01) has been speaking up about the need for broadband access in rural communities and among economically disadvantaged populations across the country for nearly a decade. In June 2020, he introduced the Expanding Opportunities for Broadband Deployment Act to increase access to, and speed the deployment of, broadband to households and small businesses currently without this vital service. 

Over the last four years, Rep. Doris Matsui (D-CA) was a strong opponent of FCC Chairman Pai's proposed cuts to the Lifeline program and, back in March, called on Pai to expand the Lifeline program for millions of Americans lacking broadband access. Also during the pandemic, Rep. Matsui has supported efforts to expand telehealth services, especially for elderly patients. She applauded the inclusion of $285 million in federal relief funding for historically Black colleges and universities, Tribal colleges and universities, and other minority-serving institutions in the latest COVID-relief law.

Rep. Peter Welch (D-VT) is a co-chair of the House Rural Broadband Caucus. He was instrumental with House Majority Whip Jim Clyburn (D-SC) in crafting the House Democratic Plan to Connect All Americans to Affordable Broadband Internet. That plan addresses broadband infrastructure, affordability, and adoption and was the basis for the Accessible, Affordable Internet for All Act which was introduced in both the House and Senate.

Rep Kurt Schrader (D-OR-5) has represented his district since 2009. He's a founder of the Problem Solvers Caucus. After the House approved the COVID-19 relief package in December, he touted provisions to improve broadband access for rural communities.

In 2020, Rep. Tony Cárdenas (D-CA) joined California colleagues in a letter to FCC Chairman Pai seeking a delay in the Rural Digital Opportunity Fund, claiming that the agency had ignored the California Public Utilities Commission’s request for a federal-state partnership. Chairman Pai answered by saying the FCC found that postponing “would cause significant delay and confusion in the entire program, as the Commission created separate mechanisms and state-specific rules for each state.”

“Telehealth has the potential to fundamentally change the delivery of care,” says Rep. Robin Kelly (D-IL-02). She introduced the Evaluating Disparities and Outcomes of Telehealth During the COVID-19 Emergency Act, which would require the Secretary of Health and Human Services to conduct a study within a year of the end of the COVID-19 pandemic summarizing healthcare utilization patterns during the coronavirus. Rep. Kelly noted that because of the pandemic's disproportionate impact on people of color, telemedicine can act as an "equalizer" in health.

Rep. Angie Craig (D-MN) is a member of the House Rural Broadband Task Force. Asked about broadband during the election, she said, "I am fully committed to the goal of bringing high-speed internet to every American by 2025. I understand that, in a 21st century economy, expanding rural broadband access will expand economic opportunity for thousands of hardworking Minnesotans. And in the wake of COVID-19, the need to expand access to high-speed broadband in rural America has never been more urgent. In Congress, I helped introduce the Accessible, Affordable Internet for All Act, which would invest $100 billion to build high-speed broadband infrastructure in communities across the country that have been underserved for decades. I also cosponsored the Accelerating Broadband Development by Empowering Local Communities Act of 2019 to roll back regulations that limit local governments’ abilities to enact their own solutions for deploying 5G broadband technology in their communities. I am fighting to ensure that, with quick and reliable broadband access, even the smallest towns and communities can compete with the rest of the world." 

Rep. Lizzie Fletcher (D-TX-07) touted broadband provisions of the latest COVID-relief bill after she voted for it in December. In 2017, Lizzie Fletcher attended a town hall hosted by her congressman, Rep. John Culberson (R-TX). As he responded to constituents' questions about his views on health care, gun regulation, immigration, and net neutrality, Fletcher didn’t like what she heard. So she decided to run against him — and won.

Rep. Bob Latta (R-OH)

Rep. Bob Latta (R-OH-05) returns as the Ranking Member of the Communications Subcommittee. He said his goals over the next two years include advancing access to high-speed broadband and “closing the digital divide,” ensuring communications networks are safe and secure, expanding the rollout of 5G infrastructure, and “maintaining global leadership to bring innovative technologies to market.” Leaders must ensure “Americans who live in rural communities, like many who live in Ohio’s Fifth Congressional District in northwest and west-central Ohio, are not left behind as participation in our 21st Century economy relies more and more on internet access,” he said. Last year, Rep. Latta cosponsored the Broadband Deployment Accuracy and Technological Availability Act which requires the biannual collection, verification, and dissemination of granular data relating to the availability and quality of service with respect to terrestrial fixed, fixed wireless, satellite, and mobile broadband internet access service, from which the FCC will compile broadband coverage maps. 

Rep. Steve Scalise (R-LA-01) "believes that technology companies are good examples of how market competition, rather than prescriptive regulations or red tape, spur innovation and more choices for consumers." He opposes net neutrality protections.

Members of Congress can find middle ground on issues such as pharmaceutical prices, expansion of broadband internet, and telehealth and tele-education, said Rep. Brett Guthrie (R-KY-02). During the election, he said rural broadband is extremely important. "If you live, you know, outside of Bowling Green (KY), even close to Bowling Green, you still struggle with broadband... I think one of the things that we found out is that people can use telemedicine without having to go to the doctor and still get the medicines they need and the doctor’s care they need, but they have to have broadband access for that.... if we have another pandemic or if we have to continue online learning that kids have to have access to that."

"I have worked tirelessly to enact policies that grow our telecommunications sector, increase transparency and accountability, facilitate private sector innovation, and enhance access to broadband internet services in rural areas like those in the 16th District of Illinois," said Rep. Adam Kinzinger (R-IL-16). He also said, "The long arm of the government needs to be used sparingly and judiciously when it comes to regulating the Internet."

In January, Rep. Gus Bilirakis (R-FL-12) joined Rep. Janice Schakowsky (D-IL) in introducing the Advancing Connectivity During the Coronavirus to Ensure Support for Seniors (ACCESS) Act. The bill would set aside $50 million for the Health and Human Services Department’s Telehealth Resource Center to expand Medicare and Medicaid coverage of telehealth services in nursing facilities. It would also create a grant program for nursing homes to create virtual visit services during the pandemic and require the HHS Secretary to provide guidance on virtual care expansion.

Rep. Bill Johnson's (R-OH-06) priorities while serving on the Commerce Committee are American energy independence, expanding economic opportunities, and on telecommunications issues, bringing high-speed broadband internet access to unserved and underserved areas in rural America. He spoke about universal broadband on a local newscast in January.

Rep. Billy Long (R-MO-07) has expressed concern with the digital divide, saying during the election that “for rural communities, broadband access is as scarce as hen’s teeth.” His focus is on expanding rural broadband across the Ozarks. He wrote an op-ed in April about how "[a]ccess to robust and reliable broadband services is more important now than ever, and it will most certainly continue to be post-pandemic."

In September, Rep. Markwayne Mullin (R-OK-02) cosponsored the Tribal Connect Act which would create a $100 million pilot program to provide broadband internet access in tribal communities lacking a library. More than 45 percent of individuals living on tribal land in Oklahoma don’t have access to high-speed internet.

Connecting rural families with broadband has been a longstanding priority for Rep. Richard Hudson (R-NC-08) who said, "The new ‘haves’ and ‘have-nots’ in our society are those who have access to broadband and those who don’t. However, whether you live in a rural area or urban one shouldn’t determine the opportunities you have. That’s why I’m determined to bring broadband to all our communities." In June, Rep. Hudson introduced the Federal Broadband Deployment Tracking Act which would require the National Telecommunications and Information Administration to submit a plan to Congress describing how it would track the acceptance, processing, and disposal of requests for communications use authorizations on Federal real property, how it would implement that plan, any barriers to that plan, and how to increase transparency to requesting parties seeking a communications use authorization on Federal real property. The bill was part of a package of 26 Republican bills aimed at streamlining broadband deployment.

In January, Rep. Tim Walberg (R-MI-07) led a bipartisan letter to the FCC regarding implementation of the Rural Digital Opportunity Fund (RDOF). The letter urges the FCC to ensure recipients of broadband deployment funding can deliver on their commitments.

Rural areas make up the majority of Earl "Buddy" Carter's (R-GA-01) district and during the election, he said broadband access for these areas is a priority. 

During the pandemic, Rep. Jeff Duncan (R-SC-03) introduced the Expediting Federal Broadband Deployment Reviews Act. The legislation would have created a strike force that would have held regular phone calls about communications use authorizations.

Two bills cosponsored by Rep. John Curtis (R-UT-03) were included in a package of 26 bills that House Republicans proposed in the summer of 2020 to streamline the deployment of broadband infrastructure.

[Editor's note: The more things change ...]

Quick Bits

Weekend Reads

ICYMI from Benton

Providing Free and Affordable Broadband for All in Illinois (John Horrigan, Brian Whitacre, Colin Rhinesmith)

Recommendations for a National Broadband Agenda

Creating (Finally) an Emergency Broadband Benefit (Kevin Taglang)

Just a song before he go: Ajit Pai's last broadband deployment report is same tired tune (Kevin Taglang)

Upcoming Events

Feb 8-10   —  Policy Summit 2021 (INCOMPAS)

Feb 9  —  Wi-Fi Summit (Fierce)

Feb 10  —  Broadband in Low-Income and Marginalized Communities (Lifeline Coalition)

Feb 10  —  Biden and Broadband (Schools Health & Libraries Broadband Coalition)

Feb 11  —  Elevate 100 Women Strong Summit (Central Florida Foundation)

Feb 11  —  Meeting of the Federal Advisory Committee on Diversity and Digital Empowerment (FCC)

Feb 12  —  Emergency Broadband Benefit Program Roundtable Discussion (FCC)

Feb 17-19  —  TPRC48 (Telecommunications Policy Research Conference)

Feb 17  —  Monthly Open Meeting (FCC)

Feb 18  —  Disability Advisory Committee (FCC)

Feb 23  —  State of the Union Address (tentative)

Feb 25  —  Build Back Better: Digital Equity in the Biden-Harris Administration (Michelson 20MM Foundation)

Feb 25  —  If Congress Makes Platforms More Liable for User Speech, What Will Change? (ITIF)

Feb 25  —  The National Strategy To Secure 5G Industry Listening (NTIA)

The Benton Institute for Broadband & Society is a non-profit organization dedicated to ensuring that all people in the U.S. have access to competitive, High-Performance Broadband regardless of where they live or who they are. We believe communication policy - rooted in the values of access, equity, and diversity - has the power to deliver new opportunities and strengthen communities.

© Benton Institute for Broadband & Society 2021. Redistribution of this email publication - both internally and externally - is encouraged if it includes this copyright statement.

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Kevin Taglang

Kevin Taglang
Executive Editor, Communications-related Headlines
Benton Institute
for Broadband & Society
727 Chicago Avenue
Evanston, IL 60202
headlines AT benton DOT org

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Broadband Delivers Opportunities and Strengthens Communities

By Kevin Taglang.