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Lawmakers Unveil 3 Bills To Expand Broadband Access

Law360 (March 10, 2021, 8:15 PM EST) — Three bills introduced in recent days on Capitol Hill would pour new federal investment into high-speed network deployment in rural areas and aim to encourage more public-private partnerships to improve communities’ broadband access.

The measures come from both sides of the aisle, and one proposal in the U.S. House of Representatives would set aside nearly $80 billion for a national broadband fund.

Rep. Peter Welch, D-Vt., unveiled that bill Tuesday. His plan would strive to “connect every household in America with high-speed broadband service capable of supporting remote schooling, online businesses and remote work, telehealth appointments and entertainment streaming,” his office said in a statement.

The program would be created through an amendment to the Communications Act of 1934. Welch’s bill authorizes $79.5 billion to expand broadband access to unserved and underserved households, with 75% reserved for expanding coverage in areas with less than 100 megabits per second upload and download speeds. The rest of the money would be distributed to state governments to launch local broadband build-out programs.

The bill includes a minimum of $100 million for small states and determines broadband build-out on new, accurate maps of broadband coverage, addressing map inaccuracies that have been identified as a major problem for deployment.

The bill also includes an authorization of $500 million for the National Telecommunications and Information Administration’s Tribal Broadband Connectivity Program and $100 million to U.S. territories.

“The digital divide is real and has only widened since the start of the COVID pandemic,” Welch said. “There is no disputing that fast, reliable broadband service is essential in our modern economy. After a year of remote schooling, online medical appointments and family Zoom calls, the need for high-speed internet for all Americans is even more clear.”

On Monday, the Rural Broadband Window of Opportunity Act was introduced by Rep. Jack Bergman, R-Mich., to address deployment in regions such as Michigan’s Upper Peninsula with less of an annual window for working on network deployment than other parts of the country.

The bill would require the Federal Communications Commission to prioritize the processing of broadband expansion applications located in areas with shorter build seasons because of long and snowy winters.

Bergman’s office noted that over the coming months, the FCC will be reviewing applications from service providers that are seeking to receive federal funding for broadband infrastructure build-outs through the $9.2 billion Rural Digital Opportunity Fund Phase I.

Bergman’s bill would make sure applications for areas with shorter construction seasons are processed faster, and he focused on his northern Michigan district as needing to avoid “any bureaucratic delays” in funding.

Bergman said in a statement that “it is common sense that the FCC should process RDOF applications faster for Michigan projects where a dark and snowy winter is always around the corner, as opposed to projects in less seasonal states.”

“We need to get shovels in the dirt as soon as possible — especially considering the increased need for telehealth and remote working during the pandemic,” he added.

Another deployment-related bill, the Community Broadband Act, was introduced Tuesday by Reps. Anna G. Eshoo, D-Calif., Jared Golden, D-Maine, and Sen. Cory Booker, D-N.J.

The legislation would remove what the lawmakers consider roadblocks for public-private partnerships and locally owned broadband systems.

“As our country deals with the ongoing public health crisis and my district prepares for yet another disastrous wildfire season, fast and affordable internet is a matter of life and death. Today, tens of millions of Americans completely lack high-speed internet,” Esho said in a statement. “The Community Broadband Act will bridge the digital divide and help local governments enable connectivity, increase economic growth and create jobs.”

The proposal would nullify state laws that inhibit local governments from building their own broadband, “preserving the local right to self-determination in connecting communities,” according to the lawmakers’ joint statement.

They said 19 states have passed laws that either restrict or outright prohibit local communities from investing local dollars in building their own broadband networks — purportedly shielding incumbent internet service providers from competition.

Golden said many rural communities, including some in his state, are investing in their own broadband infrastructure. “This bill would help more local leaders take the same proactive approach to build out affordable, reliable broadband in their towns, and protect projects already underway in the states across the country.”

Booker said internet access is a basic necessity, “but as millions of students and their families find themselves forced to work and learn remotely, those without high-speed internet access have been put at a severe disadvantage.”

“Our bill will help give local governments the necessary flexibility to meet the needs of their residents by removing onerous barriers to creating more municipal broadband networks and expand access to the internet for every community,” he said.

A representative for the FCC did not immediately respond to a request for comment Wednesday.

–Additional reporting by Kelcee Griffis. Editing by Stephen Berg.

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