High-speed internet access means fully realizing the benefits of our 21st century economy, from starting and growing a business, to online education, telemedicine, and more. All Americans should be able to participate in the digital age, no matter where they live. Unfortunately, some communities are falling behind due to lack of broadband infrastructure. That disparity is called the digital divide, and the Energy and Commerce Committee is at the forefront of efforts to close it.
Congress has already made important progress on this front by:
- Streamlining the complex, costly federal regulations that dampen private investment in order to spur broadband deployment and innovation.
- Directing federal resources to target the communities that are currently unserved or underserved.
- Ensuring the availability and efficient use of spectrum, the infrastructure necessary for wireless mobile broadband.
- Providing $690 million to support the expansion of broadband infrastructure, including new loan and grant programs.
“Bridging the rural technology divide,” The East Oregonian, Energy and Commerce Committee Chairman Greg Walden and FCC Chairman Ajit Pai.
“Building America’s 21st century infrastructure: It’s time we all got connected,” Medium, Chairman Greg Walden and #SubCommTech Chairman Marsha Blackburn.
Solutions to Close the Digital Divide
In January 2018, the Subcommittee on Communications and Technology held a legislative hearing on 25 proposals to expand broadband infrastructure. A significant number of those proposals were included as part of RAY BAUM’S Act, which was signed into law in March 2018:
H.R. 1546, the Rural Wireless Access Act, introduced by Rep. David Loebsack (D-IA) and Rep. Ryan Costello (R-PA). Provisions from this bill included in P.L. 115-141 under Division P, Section 505, direct the FCC to establish consistent methods of data collection for mobile data service so that mobile service coverage in rural areas can be accurately measured.
H.R 4795, the Communications Facilities Deployment on Federal Property Act, introduced by Rep. Mimi Walters (R-CA). Provisions from this bill included in P.L. 115-141 under Division P, Section 606, amend the Middle Class Tax Relief and Job Creation Act of 2012 to update and streamline commercial broadband deployment on federal property.
H.R. 4798, the Inventory of Assets for Communications Facilities Act, and H.R. 4839, the Broadband Infrastructure Inventory Act, introduced by Reps. Chris Collins (R-NY) and Ben Ray Lujan (D-NM), respectively. Provisions from these bills included in P.L. 115-141 under Division P, Section 608, add the suitability of federal real property to support communications facilities to an existing database of federal assets.
H.R. 4800, the Broadband Conduit Deployment Act, introduced by Reps. Anna Eshoo (D-CA) and David McKinley (R-WV). Provisions from this bill included in P.L. 115-141 under Division P, Section 607, direct the Secretary of Transportation to promulgate regulations to facilitate the use of rights-of-way on federal-aid highways to accommodate broadband infrastructure.
H.R. 4847, the Broadband Deployment Streamlining Act, introduced by Reps. Susan Brooks (R-IN) and Doris Matsui (D-CA). Provisions from this bill included in P.L. 115-141 under Division P, Section 606, institute a 270-day shot clock by which federal agencies must grant or deny applications for commercial broadband facilities on federal property.
H.R. 1814, the Rural Spectrum Accessibility Act, introduced by Reps. Adam Kinzinger (R-IL) and David Loebsack (D-IA). Provisions from this bill included in P.L. 115-141 under Division P, Section 616, direct the FCC to initiate a rulemaking to assess the potential for spectrum license holders to break-up their licenses in geographic areas so the spectrum may be used more efficiently by smaller, rural wireless providers.
H.R. 3685, the Radio Consumer Protection Act, introduced by Reps. Bill Flores (R-TX) and Gene Green (D-TX). Provisions from this bill included in P.L. 115-141 under Division E, Title V, include payments to FM broadcast stations through the TV Broadcasters Relocation Fund. Ensuring a smooth transition to relocate TV and FM broadcasters is critical to making broadcast spectrum won at auction by wireless carriers available for wireless broadband in both urban and rural areas.
H.R. 4109, the Spectrum Auction Deposits Act, introduced by Reps. Brett Guthrie (R-KY) and Doris Matsui (D-CA). Provisions from this bill included in P.L. 115-141 under Division P, Section 101, allow the FCC to deposit upfront payments from bidders in federal spectrum auctions directly with the United States Treasury. This section was crucial to permitting the FCC)to conduct further spectrum auctions necessary for wireless broadband in both rural and urban areas.
Recent progress has also been made to provide federal funding to support the deployment of broadband infrastructure.
House and Senate Appropriations Committees included $690 million for expansion of broadband through the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA)’s Rural Utilities Service in P.L. 115-141. This funding followed widespread interest in Congress, including a letter by the House Rural Broadband Caucus led by five members of the House Energy & Commerce Committee, Reps. Kevin Cramer (R-ND), Peter Welch (D-VT), Bob Latta (R-OH), Adam Kinzinger (R-IL), and David Loebsack (D-IA). Of the total $690 million, $600 million is specifically dedicated to conduct a new broadband loan and grant pilot program.
Congress included $7.5 million for the National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA) to reconstitute its broadband mapping coordination efforts in P.L. 115-141 under Division B, Title I. This funding is a down-payment on legislation (H.R. 4810) introduced by Reps. Bill Johnson (R-OH) and Brett Guthrie (R-KY) to have NTIA coordinate broadband mapping efforts across the federal government. Accurate broadband maps are necessary to identify unserved areas that should be targeted for federal support.
With Congress’ support, the FCC increased funding for the Rural Health Care (RHC) Program by $171 million a year, increasing the cap for the program to $571 million effective immediately. This boost helps enable more patients in rural communities to access telemedicine.
Congress included $1 billion over 2 years for the TV Broadcaster Relocation Fund in P.L. 115-141 under Division E, Title V. This funding addressed the shortfall of funds to relocate displaced broadcasters following the successful broadcast incentive auction, which auctioned TV broadcast spectrum for wireless broadband. In addition to TV broadcasters, the law also set up relocation funds for translators, low-power television, and radio stations, as well as a consumer education fund. Ensuring all affected broadcasters can relocate is crucially important to making auctioned spectrum available for wireless broadband in both rural and urban areas.
Recent E&C Action
Our work isn’t done yet. There’s even more we can and should do to support broadband deployment across the country. That’s why E&C is working to advance further broadband initiatives, such as:
H.R. 3994, the ACCESS Broadband Act, introduced by Reps. Paul Tonko (D-NY) and Leonard Lance (R-NJ), to establish an office of Internet Connectivity and Growth at NTIA to coordinate and track federal funding for broadband across all agencies. This office would streamline the process of applying for federal funding for projects that expand broadband access. This bill was approved by the Subcommittee on June 13, 2018, and then approved by the Full Committee on July 12, 2018.
H.R. 4881, the Precision Agriculture Connectivity Act, introduced by Rep. Bob Latta (R-OH) and David Loebsack (D-IA), to require the FCC, in cooperation with USDA, to form a task force to evaluate the best ways to meet the broadband needs of precision agriculture in the United States. The task force would focus on identifying and measuring gaps in broadband coverage, developing policy recommendations to speed deployment, and promoting integration of emerging technologies, global positioning systems (GPS), and internet access, to assist farmers and ranchers in gaining the most efficient use of their land. This bill was approved by the Subcommittee on June 13, 2018, and then approved by the Full Committee on July 12, 2018.
H.R.__, the discussion draft National Telecommunications and Information Administration Reauthorization Act of 2018. On June 26, 2018, the Subcommittee held a legislative hearing on a discussion draft to reauthorize NTIA at a funding level of $50.8 million for each fiscal year starting in 2019 through 2021. NTIA, a division of the U.S. Department of Commerce, is responsible for advising the President on telecommunications and information policy, and its programs largely focus on expanding broadband internet access and adoption in America, expanding the use of spectrum, and ensuring the internet remains an engine for continued economic growth and innovation. The discussion draft, among other provisions, reasserts NTIA’s authority over broadband mapping.
Bridging the digital divide bridges political differences. The Energy and Commerce Committee is committed to improving connectivity in homes and businesses across the country, bringing the benefits of the 21st century economy to all Americans.