Meet the New Congress - The Senate
Friday, February 12, 2021
Meet the New Congress: Part 2 - The Senate
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 8-12, 2021
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 Senate Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation. [Last week we looked at the House Subcommittee on Communications and Technology.]
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 117th Congress, broadband access will likely remain a priority.
With the results of the 2020 elections, the Commerce Committee is experiencing a change in leadership. On February 3, Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-NY) said leaders of both parties had finalized the organizing resolution for the new Democratic-controlled Senate. Modeled after the agreement of the chamber's last power-sharing arrangement in 2001, each party will have an equal number of committee seats, but the majority party will hold committee chairmanships and control the agenda, setting the schedule for nominees and legislation to come to the floor for votes, even if committee votes are tied. The committee will be comprised of 14 Democrats and 14 Republicans. Below we look briefly at their broadband priorities.
Sen. Maria Cantwell (D-WA) is the new Chair of the committee; the first woman to lead the panel. She is likely to prioritize better broadband access in underserved communities – both rural and urban. In May 2020, Chairwoman Cantwell argued for increased resources to improve and expand broadband access. “The COVID crisis has made it crystal clear: functioning broadband is absolutely necessary for every American home," she said. "We’ve spent a lot of time in this committee over the last several years talking about the persistent digital divide and the harms that come to both our economy and society. But we have not done enough to close that divide. And now, we are in the middle of a crisis where people who are disconnected from school, work, healthcare, friends, and family need access urgently. Staying connected is as critical as ever.” Chairwoman Canwell repeated her plea in June saying, “If we were still in any doubt that the COVID crisis has made its impact clear to us, it is very clear today when it comes to the issue of broadband. It is really an essential service,” said Ranking Member Cantwell. “We have a real opportunity here to close the digital divide, but I know it’s going to take being bold. It won’t be accomplished through just incremental change or plus-upping some numbers. It will require significant investment."
During 2020, former presidential candidate Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-MN) proposed a number of legislative fixes to improve connectivity during the pandemic. Most notably, she introduced the Accessible, Affordable Internet for All Act, comprehensive broadband infrastructure legislation to expand access to affordable high-speed internet for all Americans. The bill -- co-sponsored by Sens. Brian Schatz (D-HI), Mark R. Warner (D-VA), Ed Markey (D-MA), Cory Booker (D-NJ), Kamala Harris (D-CA), Elizabeth Warren (D-MA), Catherine Cortez Masto (D-NV), and Jacky Rosen (D-NV) -- would invest $100 billion to build high-speed broadband infrastructure in unserved and underserved communities to close the digital divide and connect Americans to ensure they have increased access to education, health care, and business opportunities. A companion bill was championed in the House by House Majority Whip James E. Clyburn (D-SC) and members of the House Rural Broadband Task Force. Sen. Klobuchar co-chairs the Senate Broadband Caucus and has long sought to close the digital divide and expand access to the internet. Included in the Consolidated Appropriations Act, 2021, were broadband provisions Sen.Klobuchar championed including:
- Broadband Interagency Coordination Act: Directs the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), the National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA), and the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) to enter into a memorandum of understanding to coordinate the distribution of federal funds for broadband deployment and ensure funds are targeted to unserved and underserved areas.
- $1 billion fund at the National Telecommunications and Information Administration to help ensure that college and university students at historically Black colleges and universities, Tribal colleges and universities, Hispanic-serving institutions, and other minority-serving institutions, as well as rural-serving institutions, have adequate home internet connectivity.
S en. Richard Blumenthal (D-CT) was a leading co-sponsor of the Emergency Broadband Connections Act, the legislative language that was included in the Consolidated Appropriations Act and created the Emergency Broadband Benefit Program. The law establishes a temporary, emergency broadband benefit program at the Federal Communications Commission to help low-income Americans, including those economically-challenged by the COVID-19 pandemic, get connected or remain connected to broadband. The program will supply a $50 monthly discount ($75/month for those living on tribal lands) to qualifying households to help them afford broadband service, and a subsidy of up to $100 for a low-cost device such as a computer, laptop, or tablet. FCC rules for, and launch of, the Emergency Broadband Benefit Program is expected by the end of February.
In the 116th Congress, Sen. Brian Schatz (D-HI) was the ranking member of the Commerce Committee's Subcommittee on Communications, Technology, Innovation, and the Internet. The subcommittee was chaired by the former chair of the full committee, Sen. John Thune (R-SD). Although the subcommittee has jurisdiction over wireline and wireless broadband, the FCC, and the NTIA, in recent years, the Senate Commerce Committee has bypassed the subcommittee and first considered matters at the full committee level. Sen. Schatz is very active in the communications 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.
Where should one begin recapping Sen. Ed Markey's (D-MA) impact on U.S. broadband? We don't have space here to recap chapter 1 of a very long book, but ... most notably, then-Rep Markey was the architect of many provisions of the Telecommunications Act of 1996 and a key player, former Markey staffer Colin Crowell reminded us this week, in making sure every school and library in the U.S. could afford internet access. This month, Sen. Markey led a letter from 30 Senate Democrats to FCC Chairwoman Jessica Rosenworcel asking that the FCC use E-Rate program funds to connect students with devices and home internet access who are currently unable to participate in online learning as a result of the coronavirus pandemic. This week, Sen. Markey joined Rep. Grace Meng (D-NY-06) to add more than $7 billion in funding for the E-rate program in the House coronavirus relief reconciliation proposal. Also this week, Sen. Markey and Rep. Anna Eshoo (D-CA) reintroduced legislation that would require the FCC to update the National Broadband Plan and develop an updated roadmap for achieving universal connectivity.
In a letter to Congressional leadership in May 2020, Sen. Gary Peters (D-MI) and then-Rep. Ben Ray Luján (D-NM) called for increased investments in rural broadband infrastructure to support Coronavirus response efforts in historically underserved communities. They proposed making low-interest financing options available to historically underserved communities and public-private partnerships to help deploy broadband. The measure would have allowed public-private partnerships to apply for secured loans, lines of credit, or loan guarantees for broadband infrastructure investments. Funding would have established financing opportunities for local businesses in these communities to install broadband service. Sen. Peters was also a cosponsor of the Broadband Deployment Accuracy and Technological Availability (DATA) Act which became law in 2020. The law requires the FCC to improve the accuracy of broadband availability maps.
In addition to the Commerce Committee, Sen. Tammy Baldwin (D-WI) also sits on the Senate Appropriations Committee and in that role 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. In 2020, Sen. Baldwin worked with Sen. Marsha Blackburn (R-TN) on the Internet Exchange (IX) Act (S. 1166). The bill cleared the Commerce Committee but never received a vote on the Senate floor. The bill would have created a grant program for the establishment and expansion of facilities through which internet service providers and content delivery networks exchange internet traffic (internet exchange facilities) in unserved or underserved areas. It would also allow E-Rate and Telehealth program recipients to apply such funds to the procurement or maintenance of a connection to an internet exchange facility.
Sen. Tammy Duckworth (D-IL) joined Sen. Schatz's efforts to increase funding for, and improve operations of, the FCC's Rural Health Care Program. Sen. Duckworth also joined 20 colleagues who demanded better mobile internet service for low-income Americans impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic. In a series of letters to Lifeline internet service providers, the senators urged the companies to expand their services during the pandemic.
"Democrats can really do some positive things in rural America just by talking about infrastructure and what they’re doing for infrastructure, particularly in the area of broadband," Sen. Jon Tester (D-MT) told the New York Times in December 2020. A noted critic of FCC broadband availability maps, Sen. Tester backed passage of the Broadband DATA Act. After the bill became law last March, 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.
In July 2020, Sen. Kyrsten Sinema (D-AZ) teamed with then-FCC Commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel in an op-ed that appeared in The Hill. Simply stated, they argued that Native American communities should have the same access to the opportunities of the digital age as other Americans. At the time, they were asking for some regulatory flexibility so that Tribal communities would have more time to apply for spectrum licenses to provide wireless broadband service. Also during the pandemic, Sen. Sinema helped introduce the Emergency Educational Connections Act, legislation aimed at ensuring all K-12 students have adequate home internet connectivity and devices during the coronavirus pandemic. She also co-sponsored the bipartisan Keeping Critical Connections Act—legislation that helps small broadband companies provide critical connectivity for students and families to continue their education during the coronavirus pandemic.
Sen. Jacky Rosen (D-NV) also sits on the Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pension and in that role recently introduced the Reopen and Rebuild America’s Schools Act which would, in part, expand access to high-speed broadband to ensure that public schools have the reliable and high-speed Internet access they need for digital learning. Sen. Rosen is also a co-sponsor of the bipartisan Data Mapping to Save Moms’ Lives Act which would require the FCC to map areas in the U.S. that have both broadband service gaps and high rates of poor maternal health outcomes. The idea behind collecting this information is to help identify where improved access to telehealth services can be most effective.
Sen. Ben Ray Luján (D-NM) is new to the Commerce Committee and to the U.S. Senate; he previously served in the House of Representatives. He also served on the New Mexico Public Regulation Commission, the state's telecommunications regulator. As noted above, then-Rep. Luján worked with Sen. Gary Peters (D-MI) on the Broadband Infrastructure Finance and Innovation Act. When he introduced the bill, Luján noted that only 47% of New Mexico have access to broadband and, in Tribal areas, only 36% have access.
Former Denver Mayor and Governor of Colorado, John Hickenlooper (D-CO), is also new to the Senate. During the election, Hickenlooper noted the connection between universal broadband and employment, especially in rural areas. As governor, Hickenlooper signed a bill that allocated $115 million over a five year period to extend broadband's reach in rural Colorado. As an early candidate for the Democratic presidential nomination, Hickenlooper made broadband access a key component of his rural agenda.
Rural broadband access is a priority for newly elected-Sen. Raphael Warnock (D-GA) along with investment in infrastructure. In an interview during the election, Reverend Warnock said that there are swaths of rural Georgia without broadband access, and that the United States needs an infrastructure program that “embraces the future of all [its] children.” He also voiced support for reestablishing net neutrality protections.
Sen. Roger Wicker (R-MS) is ranking member and ex-chair of the Commerce Committee. In a January 2021 op-ed, Sen. Wicker touted the progress the committee made expanding broadband to rural America under his leadership and he said he stands ready to work with President Joe Biden on the issue. Last summer, Sen. Wicker and House Commerce Committee Ranking Member Greg Walden (R-OR) proposed a legislative framework to expand broadband access and close the digital divide. Key to the proposal was providing regulatory relief through streamlining permitting processes for telecommunications infrastructure and equipment. In December, then-Chairman Wicker supported broadband-related provisions of the Consolidated Appropriations Act.
Sen. John Thune (R-SD) is the Republican Whip and also a past-chair of the Commerce Committee. Recently, he and Sen. Klobuchar led a bipartisan, bicameral letter from over 150 Members of Congress who called on the FCC to thoroughly vet Rural Digital Opportunity Fund auction winners and “validate that each provider in fact has the technical, financial, managerial, [and] operational skills, capabilities and resources to deliver the services that they have pledged for every American they plan to serve regardless of the technology they use.” In June 2020, Thune—then the chair of the Commerce Committee's Subcommittee on Communications, Technology, Innovation, and the Internet—introduced the Rural Connectivity Advancement Program Act, legislation that would have set aside 10 percent of the net proceeds from spectrum auctions for the buildout of broadband networks. In May, Sen. Thune noted the importance of the internet during the pandemic and called for making it easier for companies to deploy small antennas called “small cells” that can often be attached to existing infrastructure like utility poles or buildings, and are required for 5G technology.
Sen. Roy Blunt (R-MO) has said that he's "been committed to ending the digital divide and ensuring rural communities have the same opportunities to grow, compete, and succeed." He added that "[f]or years, the government has diverted limited resources to expand broadband to cities and towns that already have access and, in some cases, multiple providers." In December 2020, he said he's working to ensure that Missouri is getting a healthy share of federal broadband funding.
Ted Cruz (R-TX) is one of the most vocal opponents of net neutrality protections.
In December 2020, trade association USTelecom bestowed the Broadband Heroes Award on Sen. Deb Fisher (R-NE) for her efforts connecting communities through broadband. In July, she introduced the KEEP Telehealth Options Act, which would require the federal government to study the actions taken to expand access to telehealth services during the COVID-19 pandemic and report on how to improve those services. Sen. Fisher was a co-sponsor of the Data Mapping to Save Moms’ Lives Act in January 2020.
Just this week, Sen. Jerry Moran (R-KS) emphasized that both appropriations and oversight are important to advance broadband funding and expansion. Lawmakers must devote energy to ensuring that the money dedicated to FCC subsidy programs and broadband build-out is properly spent, he cautioned. In June, Sen. Moran co-sponsored the Accelerating Broadband Connectivity (ABC) Act, legislation that would have created a fund to incentivize winning bidders of the Rural Digital Opportunity Fund auction to complete their buildout obligations on a shorter timeline. Sen. Moran was also one of the original cosponsors of the Broadband Data Improvement Act in 2019.
Sen. Dan Sullivan (R-AK) said high-speed internet access can be “life-changing,” particularly for rural Alaska residents without access to other communications infrastructure. In May 2020, he joined fellow-Alaskan Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-AK) in cosponsoring the Health Care Broadband Expansion During COVID-19 Act aimed at injecting $2 billion into the FCC's Rural Health Care program. In 2017-18, Sen. Sullivan championed a bill that would have required the Government Accountability Office to examine the filing requirements for telecommunications carriers or service providers that receive Universal Service Fund support. The aim was to provide analysis of the financial impact of those filing requirements and provide any recommendations on how to consolidate redundant filing requirements.
"Closing that digital divide is vital," said Sen. Marsha Blackburn (R-TN) in January 2019. "One thing we are working on is adoption rates, so that when that fiber does come down your road you know you should get on that service. People need to know this is something you're going to need for home health, it can save you a trip to the hospital." She said, "You can’t have 21st century healthcare, 21st century education, or a 21st century economy without 21st century internet." As noted above, Sen. Blackburn spearheaded the Internet Exchange (IX) Act (S. 1166), 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.
Sen. Todd Young (R-IN) joined a number of colleagues who urged COVID relief measures include dedicated funding to help small broadband providers sustain internet services and upgrades for students and low-income families. He cosponsored the Keeping Critical Connections Act which would have appropriate $2 billion for a Keeping Critical Connections fund at the Federal Communications Commission under which small broadband providers with fewer than 250,000 customers could be compensated for broadband services—if they provided free or discounted broadband services or upgrades—during the pandemic for their customers that were low-income families unable to pay their bills or provided distance learning capability for students. He is also a co-sponsor, with Sen. Rosen and others, of the bipartisan Data Mapping to Save Moms’ Lives Act which would require the FCC to map areas in the U.S. that have both broadband service gaps and high rates of poor maternal health outcomes.
In the 116th Congress, Sen Mike Lee (R-UT) was chair of the Senate Judiciary's Subcommittee on Antitrust, Competition Policy, and Consumer Rights. He is a frequent, vocal critic of social media platforms and supports reform of Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act which provides legal immunity from liability for internet services and users for content posted on the internet.
In the 116th Congress, Sen. Ron Johnson (R-WI) chaired the Senate Homeland Security & Governmental Affairs Committee which has some jurisdiction over cybersecurity and critical infrastructure protection. Working with Sen. Gary Peters (D-MI), Sen. Johnson helped expand access to federal “rip and replace” funding for telecommunications providers and educational institutions for the removal and replacement of prohibited telecommunications equipment from Huawei and ZTE.
Sen. Shelley Moore Capito (R-WV) believes the “digital divide” is what’s keeping West Virginia, now one of the nation’s poorest states, from transforming into the latest tech hub. She started the rural-broadband caucus in the Senate and has actively worked on improving broadband data collection. Sen. Capito is eager to see infrastructure bills requiring fiber-optic cable to be installed alongside all new highways and roads. “This is an Administration that’s talked a lot about infrastructure development before they’d actually gotten into office,” Sen. Capito said. “I think they’re folding all of this work that we’ve done previously and continue to do with rural broadband into that.” When the FCC announced Rural Digital Opportunity Fund winners, Sen. Capito was appalled to learn that Frontier Communications had won roughly seventy percent of all the money allocated to the state—nearly two hundred and fifty million dollars. In 2017, the federal government asked the state to return close to five million dollars of grant money after it found that the state had reimbursed Frontier for “unallowable” and “unreasonable” costs. Sen. Capito sent a letter to the FCC, urging it to reject Frontier's bids. Other West Virginia groups and organizations did too, including the West Virginia state senate and legislature, and the Chamber of Commerce.
Sen. Rick Scott (R-FL) is a former governor of Florida. He frequently raises concerns about social media platforms censoring conservative voices in the U.S.
"Limited transportation options and unreliable broadband are two of the biggest impediments to economic diversification in Wyoming," said Sen. Cynthia Lummis (R-WY) after she was named to the Commerce Committee. "I look forward to working to expand rural broadband and addressing transportation needs for our small businesses and communities across Wyoming. I also continue to have serious concerns regarding censorship and the increasing power of Big Tech. It’s time for many of these companies to be held to account." This is Sen. Lummis' first term in the Senate.
- Sen Markey and Rep Eshoo Reintroduce National Broadband Plan for the Future Act (US Senate)
- To Bridge the Digital Divide, Cities Tap Their Own Infrastructure (Bloomberg)
- Department of Justice drops suit against California net neutrality rule, but broadband providers are still fighting it (Ars Technica)
- Some tribes are getting help narrowing the digital divide and $1 billion toward better tribal broadband is just a down payment (Marketplace)
- States push for Lifeline protections in Verizon/TracFone deal (Fierce)
- Lacking a Lifeline: How a federal effort to help low-income Americans pay their phone bills failed amid the pandemic (Washington Post)
- How the Biden Administration Can Expand Rural Broadband (New Yorker)
- COVID-19 Drove 51% Increase in Broadband Traffic in 2020 (OpenVault)
- Net Neutrality Reconsideration Petition Filed at FCC (via Multichannel News)
- ITIF’s Analysis of Broadband and Affordability Misses the Mark (John Horrigan)
- Meet the New Congress - The House (Kevin Taglang)
- 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)
Feb 16 — Free State Foundation Hosts FCC Commissioner Nathan Simington (Free State Foundation)
Feb 17-19 — TPRC48 (Telecommunications Policy Research Conference)
Feb 17 — Monthly Open Meeting (FCC)
Feb 17 — Connecting America: Broadband Solutions to Pandemic Problems (House Commerce Committee)
Feb 17 — Data as the Foundation for Broadband Planning (NTIA)
Feb 17 — Fueling the Fire of Rural Innovation (BroadbandBreakfast)
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 — The National Strategy To Secure 5G Industry Listening (NTIA)
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