The State of Broadband Amid the COVID-19 Pandemic

The Senate Commerce Committee examined the ongoing initiatives led by the Federal Communications Commission to maintain and expand high-speed and reliable broadband connections to all Americans during this national public health emergency. The hearing also examined the impact of funds provided through the CARES Act to support broadband initiatives at the federal, state, and local levels, and legislative proposals focused on addressing the digital divide during the COVID-19 outbreak. Senators were joined by four witnesses: 

  • Steven Berry, President and Chief Executive Officer, Competitive Carriers Association (CCA)
  • Shirley Bloomfield, Chief Executive Officer, NTCA - The Rural Broadband Association
  • Gene Kimmelman, Senior Advisor, Public Knowledge
  • Jonathan Spalter, President and Chief Executive Officer, USTelecom - The Broadband Association

Committee Chairman Roger Wicker (R-MS) noted that the FCC's latest broadband deployment report "tells us that the number of households without access to broadband service continues to decline. Yet, despite these advances, there is still significant work that needs to be done to get every American connected." 

Committee Ranking Member Maria Cantwell (D-WA) emphasized that increased resources to improve and expand broadband access across the US must be included in the next COVID-19 relief package. “The COVID crisis has made it crystal clear: functioning broadband is absolutely necessary for every American home," Sen Cantwell 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.” She continued, “Broadband activity can be a great equalizer in this country. But, if access is not there, then we can see right here and now during the COVID crisis the challenges to our education system, our healthcare system, and just basic contact with family and loved ones.”

CCA's Berry testified that "New network planning has slowed substantially, and carriers are facing new challenges navigating the permitting process at state and local levels due to the pandemic." He testified that CCA backs the Stay Connected Voucher proposal which would deliver two $50 vouchers to qualified households to apply to communications services bills. Vouchers would expire six months after the end of the emergency period. Berry asked Congress and the FCC to focus on updating our nation’s mobile broadband coverage maps, reform deployment policies to support a 5G future, and provide resources to ensure that ubiquitous mobile services are available in urban and rural areas alike.

NTCA's Bloomfield noted the financial strain her member carriers are under as 1) consumers -- especially newly unemployed workers -- begin having problems paying their bills, 2) demand for new installations grows to unprecedented levels, and 3) they continue to pay their own workers and provide them with personal protective equipment. She asked for near-term and long-term measures to help these small carriers. In the near term:

  • To help those who are unable to afford a connection get and keep one, an emergency broadband program should be established that provides financial support for consumers facing economic hardship due to the coronavirus pandemic.
  • Congress should provide funding to help ensure that all customers can remain connected.
  • Congress should give additional flexibility to providers struggling to repay outstanding loans issued by the United States Department of Agriculture’s Rural Utility Service Program.
  • Congress must fund implementation of the Broadband DATA Act as well as the Secure and Trusted Communications Networks Act of 2019.
  • Congress should direct the preparation of a study to assess how different services and applications and web-enabled businesses place data demands on networks and the costs that follow from accommodating such demands.

In the long-term, NTCA wants Congress to enhance, improve, and direct any new funding to existing broadband programs that have been improved over years and even decades. Programs such as the FCC’s Rural Digital Opportunity Fund and the USDA’s RUS ReConnect Program are better equipped to receive and then distribute additional funds. Any legislation should:

  • Leveraging existing broadband programs is the best way of getting the most immediate return on investment while also avoiding confusion and potential inter-agency conflicts.
  • Prevent duplication of scarce federal resources by requiring all agencies to strictly coordinate use of their broadband programs.
  • Require all agencies to use updated broadband maps and meaningful challenge processes to ensure that unserved areas are accurately identified.
  • Invest in technology that can be readily upgraded to deliver the fastest speeds over the long-term life of the asset being built, rather than supporting technologies that look cheaper to deploy now but are unable to provide meaningful internet access over time and thus will in fact cost more over time to upgrade to keep pace with increased demand. We would not use our highway program to create a two-lane road when we know an eight-lane highway will be needed in 5 or 10 years – that would be a terribly inefficient use of funds – and we should think of our broadband infrastructure the same way.
  • Remember that any program must focus not only on building the broadband network itself, but also sustaining that network over time once it has been built. In many cases, rural operators are serving roughly one subscriber per square mile, and operating a network with so few users takes not only capital for initial deployment but continued support to maintain over the long-term and keep services affordable on that network.

"The COVID-19 pandemic has highlighted how essential broadband is to modern life, and how broadband will still be essential when this crisis is over," Public Knowledge Senior Advisor Gene Kimmelman testified. He called for a comprehensive legislative package of both short-term and long-term solutions. Kimmelman's main points:

  • Funding Should Be Directed Towards All Unserved and Underserved Areas
  • Congress Should Prioritize Funding Municipal Broadband and Other Alternative Providers
  • Funding Should be Used Efficiently (think "Dig Once" policies)
  • Congress Must Enforce the Use of Accurate Data for Broadband Deployment Funding
  • Congress Should Help Narrow the Homework Gap
  • We Should Help Tribes Close the Digital Divide
  • We Should Promote Broadband Competition Through Open Access Infrastructure and Regulation
  • We Must Provide Subsidies to Make Broadband Affordable and Keep Struggling Americans Connected
  • We Must Fund Digital Equity
  • We Need the FCC to Collect Price Data
  • We Must Promote Adequate Speeds
  • We Must Ensure that Providers Invest in Improving and Maintaining Networks
  • We Must Ban Data Caps
  • We Must Require Data Collection on Network Reliability and Resiliency

USTelecom President and Chief Executive Officer Jonathan Spalter also called for Congress to work through existing agencies (FCC and RUS) and programs to address the digital divide. On finally closing the divide, Spalter asked, "If not now, then when?"

The State of Broadband Amid the COVID-19 Pandemic Committee hearing page