On May 13, 2020, the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation held a virtual hearing to discuss the nation’s broadband infrastructure amidst the COVID-19 outbreak. The importance of broadband access was the topic du jour for the Senator’s and their constituents at home. While a number of Senators and witnesses joined the hearing from the committee room, many joined remotely via video conference. Without reliable, high-speed broadband connections, this would not have been possible.
The hearing featured testimony from both industry and public interest stakeholders including: Steven Berry, President and CEO of the Competitive Carriers Association; Shirley Bloomfield, CEO of NTCA – The Rural Broadband Association; Gene Kimmelman, Senior Advisor at Public Knowledge; and Jonathan Spalter, President and CEO of US Telecom – The Broadband Association.
In his opening statement, Chairman Roger Wicker implored local governments to continue issuing permits to internet service providers (ISPs) in a timely manner. He stated that as more Americans shift to work and school from home, the need to rapidly deploy reliable network infrastructure is indisputable. Notably, while municipal governments have been balancing employee and community safety by temporarily closing offices while also continuing to provide government services, ISPs have cited delayed permitting as a major barrier to their work during this time.
A well-known topic also made an appearance in the hearing with Senators and witnesses discussing the need for updated broadband availability maps. In March 2020, Congress passed the Broadband DATA Act, signed into law by President Trump, that aims to close the discrepancies between Federal Communications Commission (FCC) mapping data and the reality on the ground. All four witnesses agreed with Senators that more granular information is necessary for present and future funding and deployment.
Throughout the hearing, another question resonated in the statements, questions, and answers of almost every Senator and witness: how do we ensure every American has the necessary broadband to participate in our new virtual lives, education, and the economy? Ranking Member Cantwell recognized that, “broadband is essential, but right now, it is without universal access.” She and Senator Tester, inquired about the importance and timeliness of bringing all people online, regardless of their financial situation. The three witnesses representing internet service providers, Mr. Berry, Ms. Bloomfield, and Mr. Spalter, all agreed with the Senators’ support of low-income communities, but emphasized that the Senate must act to provide additional funding to allow for continued support.
One of the most urgent issues discussed in this hearing was raised by Senator Blumenthal. He explored necessary changes to the Lifeline program. Lifeline, a federal telecommunications program which provides a subsidy for low-income households to obtain access to phone or broadband services, currently requires three months of qualifying paystubs with an applicant’s paperwork. Since the beginning of the COVID-19 outbreak, tens of millions of Americans have filed for unemployment, but most do not meet the three month application requirement. The FCC has temporarily suspended the three month requirement, but Senator Blumenthal pressured the committee to address this barrier more fully and simplify the process for newly unemployed people.
While Senators and witnesses discussed education systems, network performance, and permit issuing, one important group of stakeholders was noticeably absent. Though they were the focus of the Senate’s hearing, municipal government officials were once again excluded from the conversation as federal leaders debate their communities’ fates. These officials are critical to our conversation because not only are they daily decision makers, but they are living these stories and statistics day in and day out. Each time members of Congress or the FCC call a hearing and exclude local leaders, they miss a crucial part of the narrative. As the US continues to fight the COVID-19 outbreak and plan for the future, local leaders must be at the table as funding is allocated to bring residents online
In whole, the committee and witnesses recognized the importance of continuing to deploy broadband network infrastructure and provide an opportunity for all Americans to be able to get online. Internet service providers, public interest groups, and Senators continue to work together to address additional funding needs for the E-Rate program, personal protective equipment for essential broadband employees, and support for telehealth initiatives. Senator Schatz, in providing his opinion of the crisis, put it simply, “We’re missing the plot. Right now, kids can’t learn.” We can no longer plan for the broadband connectivity of tomorrow, but must ensure that every student, educator, healthcare worker, and individual can access the internet today.
Next Century Cities continues to be a voice for local officials who are working to provide every resident in every community with access to high-speed connectivity.