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Hill Faces a Partisan Broadband Divide

WASHINGTON — The divide being highlighted in the House broadband infrastructure hearing on Jan. 30 was political as well as digital, suggesting there is no easy path to closing a gap both sides recognize needs their attention.

The divisions between the majority and minority extended to the number of bills being considered, as well as to their content.

While USTelecom chair Jonathan Spalter talked of a centrifugal force bringing both sides together over broadband, House Energy & Commerce Committee ranking member Frank Pallone (D-N.J.) talked of a “check the box” hearing meant to paper over Republican “failures on infrastructure; their erosion of our privacy rights; and their elimination of net neutrality.”

Net neutrality was another of the divides, with Subcommittee chair Marsha Blackburn reiterating the assertion that Title II depressed investment in broadband deployment, something Democrats have hotly contested.

Democrats complained that the 25 bills (18 Republican, seven Democratic) being considered were a rush job that did not give members time to digest and discuss them.

House Energy & Commerce Committee chair Greg Walden (R-Ore.) countered that the idea was to get members thinking about the issues before the bills were taken up in full committee.

Democrats blasted the Republican bills as not helping close the digital divide while threatening the environment.

There was also a big discrepancy over the current size and state of that divide. Republicans highlighted the $1.6 trillion in private investment in broadband deployment, while Democrats said broadband was underdeployed and overpriced, which combined to perpetuate the divide.

Republicans were looking to target finite funds to unserved or underserved areas — meaning no overbuilding. Democrats were focused on allocating more government funds, including for money municipal broadband build-outs that would be dramatically cheaper than commercial build-outs.

As with most issues in Washington these days — even those billed as bipartisan — a middle ground on closing that digital gap appears to be a mountain range with no pass in sight.