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The top Democrat on the House Agriculture Committee is pressing to expand by the end of the year high-speed internet access to all 24 million Americans without it.
The deadline from Chair David Scott (Ga.) comes as bipartisan lawmakers and the broadband industry call for a permanent solution to internet access hurdles in remote locales, instead of relying on pilot loan programs. Whether such a plan will be included in a broader infrastructure package, tacked onto the next farm bill, or pushed through as stand-alone legislation, remains to be seen.
Building out high-speed internet to connect the “last mile” in hard-to-reach rural communities has been costly, and is one of the biggest obstacles to deployment. The coronavirus pandemic has increased pressure for an immediate fix, highlighting how much rural communities struggle with access to online schooling and telehealth.
“We here in the House Agriculture Committee can be the vanguard to now pass the money we need, get it out there in our communities,” Scott said at his committee’s rural broadband hearing April 20. Scott’s office said he wants a bipartisan solution, while declining to specify a legislative path forward.
Both Democrats and Republicans agree a permanent federal solution is needed,rather than relying on temporary programs from the Agriculture Department and the Federal Communications Commission.
“One hundred years ago, if the electrification of America was done with the same piecemeal and silos that we experience today in our work with broadband, I fear that many communities would still be in the dark,” ranking member Glenn “GT” Thompson (R-Pa.) said.
Despite discussing rural broadband challenges for over a decade, lawmakers remain divided on issues of cost, technology, and the role of the private sector.
Christopher Ali, an associate professor of media studies at the University of Virginia who studies rural broadband access, described Scott’s goal as important and “incredibly ambitious,” but “not at all likely.”
President Joe Biden proposed$100 billion in his infrastructure plan for building out broadband internet for unserved and underserved populations primarily in rural America. The proposal would remove restrictions that prevent municipally owned or rural electric cooperativesfrom competing with the private sector in serving these communities.
Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) said in mid-April she wants her chamber to pass an infrastructure bill before July 4.
But the estimated costs for such a plan vary widely. An infrastructure bill (H.R. 1848) from the House Energy and Commerce Committee offers $80 billion for broadband deployment. Hearing witness Vickie Robinson, general manager of Microsoft Corp.’s Global Airband Initiative, gauged a price tag of $60 to $80 billion. Johnny Park, CEO of Wabash Heartland Innovation Network, who also spoke on Tuesday, predicted $150 billion would be needed.
Agriculture Committee member Scott DesJarlais (R-Tenn.) pushed back against the details of Biden’s plan, arguing it could “undermine the system of private competition.” However, he said Congress could help lower broadband-related expenses, such as permitting costs.
‘Time to Deliver’
One area lawmakers may agree on is that existing programs aren’t doing the job.
The FCC oversees some broadband funding through various programs, including the Rural Digital Opportunity Fund, a two-phase auction that will direct up to $20.4 billion over ten years to invest in high-speed broadband internet access. In phase one, the FCC awarded $9.2 billion last year to serve 5.2 million homes and businesses in 49 states. Phase two plans to target households and businesses that are underserved, along with previously unfunded locations. No start date has been set for the phase two auction.
USDA also operates the Rural e-Connectivity Pilot Program, or the ReConnect program—an initiative that offersloans and grants to deploy broadband in select rural areas. Congress first funded the program with fiscal 2018 appropriations. The department didn’t respond when asked about when the initiative expires.
Ranking member Thompson said he plans to renew his request to the Appropriations Committee to move past the ReConnect pilot program and fund programs from the last farm bill, including around distance learning and telemedicine.
“ReConnect has served its purpose as a pilot program, and now it’s time to deliver on policies and programs that we promised the American people two years ago,” he said.
Rep. Vicky Hartzler (R-Mo.) also pressed to end the ReConnect program.
Broadband Access Obstacles
The question of cost and the role of the private sector come on top of existing challenges to broadband deployment, which include permitting roadblocks, supply chain shortages, and federal land access, said hearing witness Jennifer Prather, vice president and general manager of Totelcom Communications LLC. She testified on behalf of the NTCA-Rural Broadband Association, which represents more than 850 community-based telecommunication companies in rural areas.
Policymakers need updated broadband maps to know which areas currently lack access. Right now, broadband maps are based on census block levels. That means if just one home can get broadband, the entire census block is considered served. The Broadband DATA Act (Public Law 116-130), which was signed into law in March 2020, required the FCC to update its broadband mapping data. Agency staff indicated in February they may not complete their updated maps until next year.
Broadband’s Have-Nots Test Biden Plan for Rural Internet Rollout
Another question is what type of broadband technology the government should fund to reach rural communities, with questions on whether the money should go toward technologically neutral projects or only to “future-proof” technology.
Technologically neutral would include existing fixed wireless infrastructure—where wireless internet is beamed to homes and businesses via a fixed broadband tower. Future-proof technology would refer to fiber optic internet. Fiber optic cables can deliver internet at speeds much faster than fixed wireless, but cost more to build.
Biden’s infrastructure plan calls for future-proof technology, such as fiber optics, to reach rural communities. Tom Wheeler, a former FCC chairman during the Obama administration and a visiting fellow at the Brookings Institution, agreed with that approach. “You don’t spend money wisely when you buy something that you know is soon going to be obsolete.”
Lawmakers asked witnesses which standard they supported. Prather of Totelcom Communications said: “If we’re going to put money forth and build a project, we want to use those future-proof technologies and build for the future.”
Gigi Sohn, a fellow at the Georgetown Law Institute for Technology Law and Policy who served as FCC adviser to Wheeler, estimated that between the FCC and USDA, the federal government has spent around $50 billion so far in building out rural broadband.
“What do we get for a $50 billion investment? Not much,” she said in an interview. “What we don’t want is to be in the position we are today: where we built networks that were for then, and not for now, and not for the future.”