House Lifts Curtain on LIFT America Act

The House Energy & Commerce Committee dove into the omnibus Lifting Infrastructure for Tomorrow's (LIFT) America Act, which includes $40 billion for broadband buildouts.

The President and Democratic leaders were meeting Wednesday to talk about how to pay for the $2 trillion planned infrastructure revamps of roads, bridges, water supply and more.

ISPs have generally pointed out that while other infrastructure projects deal with rebuilding crumbling infrastructure, private industry has been spending billions already to build out modern infrastructure to the vast majority of America, but it was the parts that don't have it yet that drew the attention of Committee chair Frank Pallone (D-N.J.).

He said that for too long he had been hearing about the "sorry state of digital infrastructure," and talked about the "urban broadband deserts" where students had to walk to a nearby McDonald's to get access.

Ranking member Greg Walden (R-Ore.) said rebuilding infrastructure was a bipartisan priority.

He said the committee had already made great strides, under previous Republican leadership, to boost broadband, including streamlining federal regs. He said the 2009 stimulus bill broadband money was spent before the government knew where broadband wasn't, essentially signaling the today's high-profile issues with broadband mapping date in part to the Obama Administration. He said that was one reason that they needed to make sure new federal money for broadband was spent wisely.

He said there was bipartisan agreement on better mapping to prevent "rampant overbuilding." He also gave a shout-out to the multibillion penalties if T-Mobile-Sprint doesn't fulfill their buildout promises, which he said was the sort of private investment that should be incentivized.

Witness Mignon Clyburn, principal, MLC Strategies, LLC, and former FCC commissioner, said the FCC should not be using current, bad, broadband coverage maps to determine who needs broadband. "I recommend that we throw those coverage maps out," she said. "They should never again be used for any proceedings, including for funding purposes. But she said that when the government does hand out that $40 billion broadband money, it should provide a preference for those who offer 1 gig speeds.

"Congress should be investing the taxpayers’ money in infrastructure that will deliver high-speed broadband of at least 1 Gigabit, future-proof symmetrical service," she said.

Clyburn and Pallone apparently both have been staking out fast food parking lots to check on the digital divide. "Today, an estimated seven out of ten students are assigned school work that requires online access, but without broadband access at home, they are forced to sit in the parking lots of McDonald’s or the local library and complete their homework in cars or on concrete stoops late into the night," she testified.

Daniel Lyons, visiting fellow with the American Enterprise Institute, agreed with Clyburn that the money should be focused on one-time buildouts (that can be privately sustainable after that), rather than ongoing carrier subsidies. "[Y]ou should approach this investment as an 'only once' proposition," she said. "In others words, taxpayers should be asked to fund broadband infrastructure just one time and the infrastructure built should be robust and capable of serving their communities long into the future."

They also both agreed that that the money should be targeted to unserved, rather than underserved, communities, and avoid duplicative funding. "The new funding provided by the LIFT America Act should be restricted to those unserved areas that are not receiving funds from the e Connect America Fund Phase II, the USDA’s ReConnect program, or the upcoming Rural Digital Opportunity Fund," she said.

The act requires that the money to to service delivering at least 100 Mbps service downstream, but Lyons suggested it should instead be based on the actual need for speed. The 100 Mbps requirement "can be more than the average consumer needs and thus risks overinvesting in specific projects at a cost of fewer projects."

Pallone asked Clyburn how rural areas or broadband deserts would be affected by a broadband buildout. She said it would allow the young people who are leaving to make the decision to stay in those rural and urban broadband deserts, and stem a "brain drain."

Walden said streamlining permitting is as important as just spending money, a point Lyons definitely agreed with. Lyons said that if the goal is to get broadband to where it is uneconomical, lifting barriers is equally as important. He said he did not want to run roughshod over environmental reviews, but to speed the process. 

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.