Rural broadband is receiving a lot of attention from policymakers these days on both the administrative and legislative fronts. A wide range of rural broadband legislation has been introduced in the House, and the Senate Broadband Caucus has sent a letter to President Trump urging the administration to include dedicated, stand-alone funding for broadband in any proposed infrastructure package. It appears that legislators hope to further fuel current rural broadband momentum at the FCC and the White House.
Here’s a recap of policy initiatives aimed at furthering rural broadband deployment.
House Rural Broadband Legislation
Republicans on the House Subcommittee on Communications and Technology set the stage for rural broadband legislation with four resolutions last week outlining principles for broadband infrastructure. As Energy and Commerce Committee Chairman Greg Walden (R-Oregon) and Subcommittee on Communications and Technology Chairman Marsha Blackburn (R-Tennessee) explained in a blog post, the resolutions included “prioritizing infrastructure funding to areas that are currently unserved, easing the regulatory process, ensuring coordination among all levels of government and establishing clear consistent rules regardless of broadband technology.”
Since then members of the communications subcommittee have introduced six bills, including:
- The “Making Available Plans to Promote Investment in Next-Generation Networks without Overbuilding and Waste (MAPPING NOW) Act” would reassert the NTIA’s authority to conduct a National Broadband Map effort.
- The “Promoting Exchanges for Enhanced Routing of Information so Networks are Great (PEERING) Act” would authorize a matching grant program through the NTIA to promote network peering centers where none exist. In addition, the bill would authorize eligible recipients under the Universal Service Funds E-Rate program and telehealth program to use that funding to obtain a connection to a peering facility or to pay costs of maintaining a point of presence at a peering facility.
- The “Wireless Internet Focus on Innovation in Spectrum Technology for Unlicensed Deployment (WIFI STUDy) Act” would direct the Comptroller General to conduct a study on the complementary role of unlicensed spectrum in assisting with internet traffic management and the potential for gigabit WiFi service in spectrum bands below 6 gigahertz.
- The “Communications Facilities Deployment on Federal Property Act of 2018” would require executive agencies to use common application forms and cost-based application fees for easements, rights-of-way and lease requests and to use master contracts for placement of communications facility installations on federal property.
- The “Inventory of Assets for Communications Facilities Act of 2018” would require the General Services Administration to coordinate with the NTIA to ensure federal agencies include an inventory of assets that can be used to attach or install broadband infrastructure. The inventory would be made available to broadband providers.
- The “Streamlining and Expediting Approval for Communications Technologies Act” would require federal agencies to report certain data regarding applications to locate or modify communications facilities on federal assets. Data would include the number of applications approved and denied, as well as the amount of time and money spent by an agency reviewing applications.
We should expect to see additional rural broadband legislation introduced in the House, as Walden and Blackburn said three “buckets” of legislation would be forthcoming, and bills introduced to date represent only two of those buckets—removing barriers to infrastructure build-out and supporting innovation. Still to come is legislation aimed at “strengthening the public safety benefits that come with access to broadband internet,” according to the Walden/ Blackburn blog post.
Senate Broadband Funding Letter
The letter from the Senate Broadband Caucus to President Trump urges the president to include dedicated stand-alone funding for broadband in any infrastructure funding package. The letter notes that in the most rural and lowest density areas of the country “generating private investment can be difficult.”
The letter goes on to argue that “stand-alone funding for broadband will ensure that telecommunications infrastructure is advanced alongside needed upgrades to our roads, rail, bridges, ports and waterways.”
The Senate Caucus likely felt the need to send the letter after a recent Trump speech did not reference broadband as one of several types of infrastructure that he said would receive “necessary funds.”
After making the speech, Trump signed two executive orders aimed at eliminating red tape that can hinder broadband deployment. Senate Caucus members likely had those actions in mind when they noted that policies that streamline the deployment process will help speed broadband deployment but added that “these policies must support, not replace, investments in rural America.” By “investments,” the letter authors apparently meant “direct federal investments,” which they also reference in the letter.
FCC Chairman Ajit Pai also has voiced support for additional rural broadband funding and has proposed that the commission make an additional $500 million available to support rural broadband investment.
Update: Two other rural broadband-related bills also have been introduced in the House. A bi-partisan “Dig Once” bill would mandate the inclusion of broadband conduit—plastic pipes which house fiber-optic communications cable—during the construction of any road receiving federal funding. A Democrat-sponsored Community Broadband Act would prohibit states from writing laws that inhibit local governments from building their own broadband networks.
Image courtesy of flickr user Sean MacEntee.