Recap: Ensuring Solutions to Meet America’s Broadband Needs
The Senate Commerce Committee's Subcommittee on Communications, Media and Broadband held a hearing examining ongoing and past efforts within the public and private sectors to bring affordable, resilient and secure broadband to all communities. Four witnesses testified during the hearing:
- Kimball Sekaquaptewa, Chair, Connect New Mexico Council; Chief Technology Director, Santa Fe Indian School
- Michael Powell, President and CEO, NCTA – The Internet & Television Association
- Jonathan Spalter, President and CEO, USTelecom
- Angela Siefer, Executive Director, National Digital Inclusion Alliance
Subcommittee Chair Ben Ray Luján (D-NM) opened the hearing saying it is time to put 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 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. He noted that the history of redlining in the housing and banking industries can been seen today in the communities suffering because of digital redlining. It is imperative, said Chairman Luján, that the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) adopt rules that eliminate digital discrimination. The federal resources available now for broadband should not reinforce existing inequities. Chairman Luján also called for confirmation of Benton Senior Fellow and Public Advocate Gigi Sohn as FCC commissioner.
The subcommittee's minority leader, Sen. John Thune (R-SD), noted the billions of dollars Congress has made available for broadband programs since March 2020. He said these monies should help close the digital divide. "The bad news is that this funding is spread out over 15 separate agencies and 133 programs." He called that "deeply concerning." Sen. Thune said the U.S. Department of Commerce's National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA) has fumbled previous efforts to close the digital divide. "I am afraid that without stringent oversight NTIA will make—and has already made—the same mistakes in managing the $42.5 billion Broadband Equity, Access, and Deployment Program and the Tribal Broadband Connectivity Program." On December 6, Sen Thune launched a nationwide oversight effort that will review numerous broadband programs spanning several federal agencies. Sen Thune also called for permitting reform, a priority of the industry representatives testifying at the hearing.
Kimball Sekaquaptewa, from the Hopi Tribe of Arizona and a mother to three children of the Pueblo de Cochiti, testified about the struggles she had connecting her community. "While I share a tribal experience, it is largely a rural experience," she said. She stressed the importance of the Tribal Broadband Connectivity Program in addressing the digital divide in New Mexico. She spoke about her experience implementing a pilot grant program with requirements similar to the Broadband Equity, Access, and Deployment (BEAD) Program:
While local governments are eligible grantees, functionally they are challenged to participate given the stringent requirements for matching funds, letters of credit, and professional engineering stamps. These requirements favor better resourced ISPs, who will apply to serve their next best markets. As a nation, we run the risk of replicating the status quo and missing the most underserved communities.
Michael Powell said that the cable industry is committed to delivering high-speed broadband to America. Accomplishing this mission requires policies that address three critical objectives:
- Encourage significant private investment in the construction of next-generation networks, including government action to remove barriers that slow deployment such as permitting delays and pole access;
- Target government funding to areas that are unserved. Experience shows that support is often siphoned to areas that are more economical to serve and already have broadband, leaving too many communities still waiting for internet access. Public spending is essential to overcoming geographic and economic barriers that leave unserved communities on the wrong side of the gap; and
- Promote broadband adoption. This challenge is two-fold: we need to effectively offer financial support to low income communities, and work with experienced community organizations to raise awareness of available support and teach digital skills to those who have access to broadband, but don’t subscribe.
Representing the telecommunications industry, Jonathan Spalter offered a number of suggestions to help government, industry and community organizations reach universal broadband goals:
- Conduct appropriate oversight to ensure grant recipients are properly vetted to ensure they have the proven ability to complete complex infrastructure projects.
- Ensure government agencies coordinate deployments based on FCC broadband maps, so funds prioritize unserved and underserved locations.
- Make sure the policy environment is flexible and supportive of provider efforts to navigate supply chain challenges to prevent equipment-related project delays.
- Pass national permitting reform legislation like S. 1113 – The Accelerating Rural Broadband Deployment Act which would create a shot clock for agencies to approve or deny an application within 60 days or the application is deemed granted
- Pass S. 5021 – The Broadband Grant Tax Treatment Act to make clear broadband grant awards should remain in the communities they aim to serve—rather than be taxed back to Washington.
- Pass S. 2427— Fair Contributions Act that would require the FCC to study and report on the feasibility of funding the Universal Service Fund through contributions from edge providers (i.e., providers of online content or services, such as search engines).
- Make funding for the FCC's Affordable Connectivity Program permanent.
- sustained funding for the Affordable Connectivity Program,
- additional funding to expand middle mile networks,
- sustained federal funding for digital navigator programs, digital skills training, broadband adoption, and devices,
- confirmation of Gigi Sohn, and
- digital equity funds dedicated to Tribes and territories.
What your historic investment in digital equity should do, and will do, is create systems-level change and strong local digital inclusion ecosystems that allow us to continually adapt as technology changes. We should call the investments a success when:
- Government agencies integrate broadband adoption programming and device ownership into their programs.
- Industries who benefit from their customers being online prioritize digital equity in their corporate giving and community partnerships.
- Philanthropy prioritizes digital equity in their giving because it strengthens their missions.
- Local digital inclusion ecosystems are so robust that when people can’t get online for any reason, they can readily find the support and resources they need.
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