By Julia Arciga
Law360 (February 16, 2021, 6:14 PM EST) — Two Republican representatives unveiled a package of nearly 30 bills Tuesday aimed at promoting broadband deployment, boosting competition and kick-starting infrastructure development to expand reliable internet access across the country amid the coronavirus pandemic.
The Republican leader of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, Cathy McMorris Rodgers, R-Wash., and the Republican Subcommittee Leader for Communications and Technology Bob Latta, R-Ohio, said the 28 bills — sponsored by them and many other Republican committee members — would help address the “challenges faced by families and workers who still do not have reliable access to the internet” during the COVID-19 pandemic.
“This has prevented millions from accessing vital health care, remote work and economic resources. Unreliable internet and limited broadband access has also set countless children back in school because of connectivity issues while far too many schools remain closed. It’s unacceptable and hurting the next generation,” Rogers and Latta said in a statement.
“To make a strong comeback from this pandemic, every House Republican on Energy and Commerce is leading in the Boosting Broadband Connectivity Agenda so America closes the digital divide,” their statement continued. “This agenda will get education back on track and promote economic opportunity for all Americans across the entire country.”
In response, FCC Commissioner Brendan Carr said the bill package was a “smart set of infrastructure reforms” that set a “bold and effective connectivity agenda.”
“Their thoughtful reforms would help close the digital divide and further extend America’s leadership in 5G by helping to accelerate the build-out of high-speed connections and boost competition for Americans’ broadband dollars,” Carr’s Tuesday statement said. “Their ideas, including legislation that would tackle the permitting delays that persist for internet builds on federal lands, would make an immediate difference for rural communities across the country.”
Among the bills are five aimed at promoting new infrastructure deployment by streamlining permitting processes for wireless providers and telecommunications service providers, establishing shot clocks for authorities to take action on requests to expedite the new cable franchise deployments, limiting government-run broadband networks throughout the country in favor of private investment and other reforms.
Six bills also seek to remove “unnecessary and duplicative” environmental and historical preservation “barriers” to the expansion and deployment of broadband. For example, the Brownfields Broadband Deployment Act and the Coastal Broadband Deployment Act seek to remove the requirement for an environmental or historic preservation review for broadband deployment projects within a floodplain or previously developed land.
Eight of the 28 bills are focused on promoting competition among broadband providers by reducing the amount of “federal red tape” for parties interested in updating wireless facilities or adding new ones, and expediting approval processes for certain facility updates. Finally, the last nine bills in the package seek to promote more broadband deployments on federal lands — including the DIGITAL Applications Act, which proposes the establishment of an online portal to make it easier to process applications to deploy communications facilities on federal property.
The rollout of the House GOP’s broadband agenda comes less than a week after House majority whip Rep. Jim Clyburn, D-S.C., said he would reintroduce his Accessible, Affordable Internet for All Act. The bill, previously floated this summer, would allocate $100 billion to broadband expansion while requiring providers to build in low-cost plans and report pricing data to the Federal Communications Commission. Sen. Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn., will introduce an identical bill in the Senate, Clyburn said at the time.
On top of unveiling the broadband agenda, Rogers and Latta also sent a letter Tuesday to the Commerce Department’s telecom agency, otherwise known as the National Telecommunications and Information Administration, to ensure unserved and rural areas are prioritized when it begins to give out grant funds for broadband development.
The two lawmakers, in their letter, emphasized that the funds “must be prioritized to areas with the greatest number of unserved households,” and requested that the NTIA incorporate a “challenge process” in order to “to ensure that any broadband deployment funding is properly targeted to truly unserved areas.”
A representative for the NTIA did not immediately respond to requests for comment Tuesday.