On the heels of President Trump’s “Infrastructure Week,” Republicans and Democrats in Congress are eager to move on a package that expands access to broadband, even absent a plan from the White House.
“This is where Democrats have really, from the beginning of the new administration, this is where our hopes have gone to, that we can work together on infrastructure,” Rep. Anna Eshoo, D-Calif., told the Washington Examiner.
“I’d like to see a robust infrastructure bill, which includes broadband,” she said. “It has to be for this Congress. I don’t know why we’re waiting.”
Stakeholders from the federal government down to the municipal level are urging the Trump administration to include broadband in its $1 trillion infrastructure plan.
In March, representatives from 62 cities and counties across the country sent a letter to Trump, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and House Speaker Paul Ryan advocating for broadband to be in a future package.
“Broadband Internet access is necessary infrastructure, and key to prosperity,” the mayors and municipal leaders, part of Next Century Cities, wrote. “It empowers entrepreneurship and economic growth, arms our teachers and students for success in the classroom, and gives our citizens a voice in the national dialog on our future”
There hasn’t yet been movement from the administration yet, and stakeholders will reportedly gather at the White House to discuss the issue in the coming weeks. But Rep. Marsha Blackburn, R-Tenn., said it’s a priority for lawmakers this year.
“You will hear more about infrastructure and do expect that you will see broadband in the infrastructure bill when everything is finalized,” Blackburn, who chairs the Energy and Commerce subcommittee on Communications and Technology, told the Washington Examiner. “When we talked to our local elected officials, the No. 1 issue they discuss is broadband and access to broadband. Without it, rural areas that are both un-served and underserved are not going to have access to economic development opportunities, improved health care and improved education.
“All three of those are related to jobs development, and we know the president’s No. 1 goal is jobs, jobs, jobs,” she said.
Blackburn, whose subcommittee held a hearing on broadband deployment in March, said the panel would continue to look at the issue in the coming weeks.
But while Congress continues to work through a packed agenda, the Tennessee Republican said lawmakers are working closely with the Federal Communications Commission to expand access to broadband.
“I think Chairman [Ajit] Pai at the FCC has a very aggressive plan, with his push to close the digital divide and increase broadband access, and we’re looking forward to taking up a component that will help us do our part legislatively and through the appropriations process with helping to close that digital divide,” Blackburn said.
Indeed, Pai has made broadband access a priority of the FCC this year.
“It is incredibly important for us to essentially embrace the spirit of a field of dreams, ‘If you build it, they will come,’ ” Pai said in an interview with the Rapid City Journal last week following a roundtable in South Dakota. “If you build these broadband connections to rural America, I’m convinced that thousands, if not millions, of younger rural Americans could take advantage of it, come to the table, and compete in events … on par with anybody around the world.”
The FCC has already begun to lay the groundwork for that “field of dreams.”
Last month, the agency issued a notice of proposed rulemaking seeking comment on actions to remove regulatory barriers to infrastructure investment at all levels of government and to better enable broadband providers to build, maintain and upgrade their networks.
“This is the kind of thing that is going to get more broadband into the hands of consumers,” Joe Kane, a tech policy associate with the R Street Institute, told the Washington Examiner. “It’s not a sexy political battle, but it’s getting to the [question of] why is your computer really slow? A better example is people who don’t currently have broadband. It’s people in rural areas where it hasn’t been profitable to build out there. Now that we have 5G on the horizon, it’ll be more possible tor each those areas.”
The R Street Institute filed comments with the FCC on its proposed rule, but while Kane said expanding access to broadband is “one of the most important things the FCC can do,” he said there’s still a place for Congress to take action unilaterally.
“It could be them pre-empting state laws themselves,” Kane said.
Congress could also pass “one touch” make-ready policies, Kane said, which would allow an agreed-upon contractor to move existing pole attachments on a single visit. Currently, each existing pole attachment has to be rearranged and moved sequentially.
Eshoo, like Blackburn, is ready for Congress to move forward.
Since 2009, Eshoo has been proposing “dig-once” legislation, which requires the inclusion of broadband conduit (pipes that hold fiber-optic communications cables) in the construction of any road that receives federal funding if there is a need for broadband in the area over the next 15 years.
The legislation has bipartisan backing, and the California Democrat said it’s time for “action instead of talk.”
“Transportation, infrastructure, obviously broadband and taking steps such as ‘dig-once,’ they all advance something that is necessary for our country,” she said. “It’s bewildering to me why no one has pushed the start button on it.”