House Democrats Update Broadband Deployment, Adoption Plan

With the COVID-19 pandemic-generated stay-at-home new normal putting an exclamation point on broadband access, a dozen House Democrats have revised and extended the Dems' already-announced $80 billion-plus Moving America Forward Framework for universal broadband. 

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It comprises initiatives on adoption, infrastructure and affordability. Among other things, it establishes an Office of Internet Connectivity and Growth within the National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA), the Administration's chief communications policy advisor, to coordinate broadband deployment efforts across agencies.  

It also boosts broadband subsidies and promotes municipal broadband. 

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That is according to House Energy & Commerce Committee chairman Frank Pallone (D-N.J.) and Majority Whip James Clyburn (D-S.C.), father of another longtime broadband deployment advocate, former FCC chair Mignon Clyburn. 

They were joined by 10 members of the Rural Broadband Task Force and E&C Committee in announcing the new plan--Communications Subcommittee chairman Mike Doyle (D-Pa.), and Reps. Jerry McNerney (D-Calif.), Dave Loebsack (D-Iowa), Marc Veasey (D-Texas), Anna Eshoo (D-Calif.), Congressman Peter Welch (D-Vt.), (Assistant Speaker) Ben Ray Luján (D-N.M), Paul Tonko, Grace Meng (both D-N.Y.), and Mark Pocan (D-Wis.). 

The updated plan comprises the following: 

Invest in Internet Infrastructure 

Deploy High-Speed Broadband – Invests $80 billion over five years to deploy secure and resilient broadband infrastructure to expand access for communities nationwide, connecting unserved and underserved rural, suburban, and urban areas across the country while prioritizing persistent poverty communities 

Offer Low-Interest Financing for Broadband Deployment – Invests $5 billion over five years for low-interest financing of broadband deployment through a new program that would allow eligible entities to apply for secured loans, lines of credit, or loan guarantees to finance broadband infrastructure build out projects 

Dig Once – Promotes the installation of broadband conduit during the construction of any road receiving federal funding to facilitate the building of broadband network infrastructure 

Invest Federal Funds Efficiently – Establishes the Office of Internet Connectivity and Growth within the National Telecommunications and Information Administration, responsible for coordinating with other federal agencies to streamline the application processes for broadband funding programs; ensure that broadband-related support is being administered in an efficient, technology-neutral, and financially sustainable manner; and track all federal money used for construction and use of broadband infrastructure 

"Ensure Internet Affordability

Promote Competition – Gives preference in awarding funding to broadband builds that will provide open access to new infrastructure to allow additional providers to use taxpayer funded infrastructure on fair terms to provide more options to consumers 

Require an Affordable Option – Requires internet service providers whose networks are built with new federal funding to offer at least one affordable option 

Enhance Payment Support – Increases existing payment support for consumers, expands eligibility for and applicability of support, and eliminates barriers to helping low-income and recently unemployed Americans afford broadband access 

Protect Local Options – Guarantees the right of local governments, public-private partnerships, and cooperatives to deliver broadband service, which has lowered prices in many communities 

Gather Pricing Data – Directs the Federal Communications Commission to collect data on prices charged for broadband service throughout the country and make that data widely available with appropriate privacy protections 

Learn More Information Directs the Office of Internet Connectivity and Growth to conduct a study on the extent to which cost remains a barrier to broadband adoption and the feasibility of providing additional targeted federal subsidies to offset costs for low-income households 

Enable Internet Adoption

Promoting Broadband Adoption and Digital Skills – Provides over $1 billion to establish the State Digital Equity Capacity Program, an annual grant program for states to create and implement comprehensive digital equity plans to help close gaps in broadband adoption and digital skills. Also establishes the Digital Equity Competitive Grant Program to further support these efforts through digital inclusion projects undertaken by individual organizations and local communities. 

Lend Mobile Hotspots – Provides for the rapid deployment of mobile hotspots and other internet-connected devices to enable students without internet at home to participate in remote learning and complete homework assignments requiring an internet connection 

Connect School Buses – Authorizes funding for WiFi on school buses so that students can be connected, especially in rural areas where long bus rides are common 

“In January, House Democrats proposed a bold framework to rebuild our country that included over $80 billion for broadband investments and built upon the Energy and Commerce Committee’s years-long work on the LIFT America Act," said Pallone. "With the COVID-19 pandemic now plaguing our nation, our urgency to ensure all Americans have access to affordable, high-speed broadband internet has only increased.... “These investments are especially important for our children who rely on remote-learning, patients using telehealth, and many low-income and rural Americans who currently lack access to reliable internet service.” 

“Just as the Rural Electrification Act made electricity accessible and affordable to all Americans, the plan we are announcing today will make broadband accessible and affordable to all Americans," said Clyburn. "As we see millions of our fellow Americans unable to telework, learn remotely, or access telehealth because they lack broadband, now is the time to act.” 

The announcement of the government push for universal broadband came the same day a Pew Research survey found that a majority of Americans (62%) say it is not the federal government's responsibility to make sure that all Americans have a high-speed internet connection at home during the COVID-19 outbreak, even though it may hinder how they perform everyday tasks in the "new normal."  

"If the COVID-19 pandemic teaches us anything it’s that all Americans – no matter where they live or their economic circumstances – deserve to be connected to the high-speed broadband Internet," said Christina Mason, VP of government affairs for WISPA, the wireless internet service providers association. "The plan outlines several major initiatives to meet that end, and it provides a significant amount of funding to reach its goals." 

John Eggerton

Contributing editor John Eggerton has been an editor and/or writer on media regulation, legislation and policy for over four decades, including covering the FCC, FTC, Congress, the major media trade associations, and the federal courts. In addition to Multichannel News and Broadcasting + Cable, his work has appeared in Radio World, TV Technology, TV Fax, This Week in Consumer Electronics, Variety and the Encyclopedia Britannica.