Technology subcommittee ‘disappointed’ with slow progress in rural broadband

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Industry representatives spoke before a congressional subcommittee Wednesday to discuss definitions and mapping of broadband connectivity and accessibility, emphasizing the importance of accurate data for proper allocation of taxpayer dollars to bridge the urban-rural divide.

During the hearing, Rep. Marsha Blackburn, Republican chairperson of the House Energy and Commerce Subcommittee on Communications and Technology, expressed with lament that the National Broadband Map — a standard reference point using data provided by the National Telecommunications and Information Administration — had not been updated since June 2014 after the Federal Communications Commission failed to gain funding in fiscal year 2016. Others pointed out shortcomings of the FCC’s system for mapping broadband availability, while two senators announced the reintroduction of a bill that would expand access of rural telehealth services. Broadband, Blackburn said, is this decade’s main infrastructure challenge.

“The digital divide continues to plague rural America in particular,” Blackburn said, and further emphasized the responsibility of the government to collect and share accurate data so areas of high need can be attended to.

The representative also called for a reassessment of broadband development, given changes in FCC standards, based on “current level of coverage or lack thereof and the cost of development.” The FCC’s 2015 decision to raise the minimum download speed for broadband classification from 25 Mbps up from 4 Mbps played a central role in the hearing as the change drastically reduced the number of Americans considered covered by broadband service.

According to data from 2016, 10 percent of Americans do not have broadband access, while 39 percent of rural Americans lack access.

Brent Legg, vice president of government affairs for nonprofit Connected Nation gave testimony in which he analyzed potential flaws in the FCC’s data collection system — also known as form 477 — which he said generated unnecessary costs that could be applied elsewhere. Connected Nation is the nation’s largest grantee under NTIA’s State Broadband Initiative (SBI) grant program, responsible for mapping and planning broadband projects.

“Form 477 requires providers to report census blocks where they provide service. Unfortunately, if even one household in a given block is served, the entire block is considered as having service, resulting in a significant overstatement of availability,” Legg said in a prepared statement. “This is particularly problematic in rural areas where census blocks can be very large — some being larger than the entire state of Connecticut.”

The subcommittee also raised issues with the FCC’s Universal Service Fund, calling for allocation from the fund to service technology programs that would bridge the broadband gap between rural and urban communities.

Republican  Sen. Roger Wicker and Democratic Sen. Brian Schatz announced that they were reintroducing the Reaching Underserved Rural Areas to Lead (RURAL) on Telehealth Act, legislation that would qualify some rural healthcare providers for USF funds. The legislators emphasized that broadband is an imperative in using new lifesaving technologies.

Some of the House Democrats at the hearing expressed frustration over the lack of progress being taken towards legislation to resolve issues like these.

“I appreciate the subcommittee’s continued focus on broadband infrastructure but I am disappointed that we are having another hearing exploring the topic rather than a legislative hearing to advance the bills we have worked on,” said Democratic Rep. Doris Matsui in reference to a hearing held in March.

Democratic Reps. Michael Doyle of Pennsylvania and David Loebsack of Iowa expressed similar sentiments related to several recent infrastructure budget proposals.

“Broadband means jobs, but in Iowa, access to broadband is even more than that. It’s a matter of survival. … In order to make that happen we need both dollars and data,” Loebsack said.

The hearing coincided with an announcement from President Donald Trump, who said his $1 trillion infrastructure plan will include provisions related to rural broadband improvement.

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broadband, FCC, Marsha Blackburn
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