Public Knowledge: Congress Must Allow Overbuilding

Public Knowledge's message to the Senate Wednesday (May 13) will be that broadband is an essential service currently without universal access, a digital divide that must be closed in a COVID-19 reality with money prioritized to municipal broadband and co-ops and with Congress removing limitations on "overbuilding." 

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Public Knowledge says that any government money toward that end should be conditioned either on funding competing service in undserved areas--municipal broadband and co-ops-- or mandating that ISPs serve areas they do not currently take subsidies to build out because they are unprofitable over time. 

That is according to the testimony of senior advisor Gene Kimmelman for a hearing in the Senate Commerce Committee on broadband and COVID-19. He said Congress' must not only look at short term measure but long-term investments in expanding access to those in need in all communities, rural, suburban and urban, and by access he means to "reliable, resilient and sufficient" broadband service, and to both unserved and underserved.  

Kimmelman said government policies creating more affordable broadband should supersede the state bans or impediments to municipal broadband. 

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He suggested Congress may need to allocate as much as $80 billion for a universal buildout, citing FCC estimates that that is what it will cost to deploy nationwide broadband. He said Congress should prioritize municipal broadband and co-ops when handing out the money. 

ISPs have traditionally pushed back on such efforts as government-subsidized overbuilds of their existing service that often aren't sustainable as ongoing operations once the build-out subsidies run out. 

He also said Congress should force the FCC to come up with better broadband availability data and to treat state broadband grants as complements, not replacements, for federal efforts. The FCC has said a new broadband buildout fund should be reserved for areas not already getting broadband grants from other sources. 

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And while there has been an emphasis on digital learning for K-12, Kimmelman said Congress should also pass the Connectivity for Higher Education Students in Need Act, which provides money for post-secondary schools. 

Kimmelman's other asks included a ban on data caps, reinstating FCC copper retirement rules, and requiring the FCC to collect detailed data on broadband pricing. 

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.