Congress to push broadband expansion

On the heels of President Donald Trump’s orders to expand broadband access, Congress is preparing to follow suit with an aggressive push to make high-speed internet service more readily available in rural America.

Rep. Marsha Blackburn, a Brentwood Republican who leads a key House subcommittee, said she expects to introduce several pieces of legislation in the next three months to remove the barriers to broadband expansion into rural areas.

“We are going to put this emphasis on getting broadband into these unserved rural areas because you’re not going to have economic development or 21stcentury health care or expanded education opportunities or workforce and jobs retraining without it,” said Blackburn, chairwoman of the House Energy and Commerce Committee’s Subcommittee on Communications and Technology.

Details of the bills are still being worked out, Blackburn said, but the goal is to simplify the permitting process that technology companies say hinders efforts to expand broadband into sparsely populated areas.

Blackburn said the legislation also will call for a “technology neutral” regu latory process, meaning that it must prevent service providers from favoring one type of technology over another when deciding which services to offer.

“We don’t want to pick winners and losers,” she said.

Bridging the digital divide so that rural Americans can have improved access to high-speed internet is a priority for Congress and the White House, as well as the Tennessee legislature.

In May Gov. Bill Haslam signed into law a bill that will provide $45 million over three years in grants and tax credits for service providers to assist in making broadband internet available to “unserved” homes and businesses throughout the state.

Some 39 percent of rural Americans — roughly 23 million people — don’t have access to broadband services, according to a 2016 report by the Federal Communications Commission. By comparison, just 4 percent of Americans in urban areas lack access to high-speed internet.

Broadband allows users to access the internet and online-based services at significantly higher speeds than those available through “dial-up” phone services. Broadband speeds vary significantly depending on the technology and level of service, but generally make it easier to view certain types of media, such as video.

State and local officials see broadband access as essential for economic development and giving consumers in remote areas access to educational opportunities such as online college courses. It also could open the doors for “telemedicine” so that rural patients can confer online with medical specialists in urban areas and quickly share test results and other information.

Trump has indicated that broadband expansion will be part of the infrastructure package that he will submit to Congress in the coming weeks.

During an appearance in Nashville last week, he took some initial steps by signing two executive orders declaring that the executive branch will “use all viable tools” to accelerate the deployment and adoption of affordable and reliable broadband in rural America.

The orders dictate that executive departments work “to reduce barriers to capital investment, remove obstacles to broadband services and more efficiently employ government resources.”

A major barrier to broadband expansion is the myriad regulatory hoops through which companies must jump to get permission to lay fiber lines, put up cellular towers or install other broadband infrastructure, said Tiffany Moore, vice president of government affairs for the Consumer Technology Association, a trade group.

“That can be increasingly cumbersome, particularly at the federal level,” she said. “If it’s on federal land, there are environmental regulations” that must be followed.

A bipartisan bill filed in October by Sens. Roger Wicker, R-Miss., and Catherine Cortez Masto, D-Nev., attempts to streamline the permitting process for telecommunications equipment installed in locations that already have been subjected to historical or environmental reviews.

The bill, dubbed the SPEED Act, is pending before the Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works.

Yet the main obstacle to broadband expansion into rural areas is cost, said Pennsylvania Rep. Mike Doyle, the top Democrat on the House Communications and Technology Subcommittee.

“It would require tens of billions of dollars to bring broadband to unserved and underserved parts of the country,” he said.

“The private sector hasn’t done it because they know they wouldn’t make a profit on it.”

Any rural broadband initiative without substantial new funding “would be nothing more than window dressing,” Doyle said.

Blackburn said funds will be dedicated for broadband expansion, but suggested that some of the money may be redirected from other programs.

Source: Knoxville News Sentinel, by Michael Collins

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Published January 25, 2018