New Rural Broadband Funding Bill Introduced in House

Congress continues to add to the rolls of bills seeking more funding for broadband buildouts in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. 

Reps. Rob Wittman (R-Va.) and Bill Johnson (R-Ohio) have introduced the Serving Rural America Act. The bill would authorize $500 million over five years for a pilot grant program overseen by the FCC. 

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The legislation would encourage broadband providers to get together to determine where service is or isn't available, a big issue on the Hill, and to make sure there is no overbuilding of existing plant by limiting support to one provider in a rural area. It would also put a premium on higher speeds. 

Wittman called the bill "must-pass legislation to insure we close the digital divide." 

One way to do that would be to add it to the next must-pass COVID-19 aid bill being worked out in Congress. 

Related: Dems Say Infrastructure-Targeted COVID-19 AID Bill Is Priority

"If solutions like this aren’t enacted soon, there won’t be a rural broadband problem left to solve, because people will leave rural America and move to places where they and their children have access to the ever-expanding digital world," said Johnson. 

Specifically, the bill would:  

1. "Requires an eligible provider to partner with a locality, city, county, wireless authority, or planning district commission to ensure the needs and input of residents are included. 

2. "Prioritizes funding to areas without 25Mbps/3Mbps.

3. "Includes important measures to ensure interagency coordination and safeguards against overbuilding of other federally funded broadband projects.

4. "Features a challenge process that allows the public or other existing service providers in the proposed service area to submit a challenge to the FCC, to determine whether the proposed project would duplicate existing broadband service in the proposed service area.

5. "Includes important measures to improve mapping including: analysis of third party data, crowd sourcing, and site specific testing in service areas where mapping data has been contested.

6. "Instructs the FCC to report to Congress annually on the progress of the program based on buildout data provided by recipients."

NTCA - The Rural Broadband Association applauded the effort.  

“From prioritizing higher speeds and better performing services to promoting effective coordination among federal programs, this bill represents a significant advancement in the discussion about how best to solve our country’s remaining broadband challenges," said NTCA CEO Shirley Bloomfield.   

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.