Flurry of Broadband Bills Only Raises the Noise Level in Congress

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Money, time and even the hearing details themselves were squabbled over yesterday in a House Communications Subcommittee hearing. Up for discussion, were 25 bills to facilitate broadband deployment, especially to rural areas. Democrats like Pennsylvania’s Mike Doyle said it was too much. “We’re simply not giving these bills the time and expertise,” they deserve, he said. Doyle suggested it would be more prudent to hold a series of hearings and also add representatives of relevant government agencies.

Democrats were also concerned none of the bills specifically appropriate funding to broadband deployment. California Dem Anna Eshoo said, “There is nothing here that will address what we need. I implore the majority to get real. We have to have money.”

Oregon Republican Greg Walden, who also chairs the larger House Commerce Committee, said it was important to get the bills out so the public can see them. “We want NTIA and other organizations to help us figure out what areas are not served. The big investment here is coming from the private sector.” However he added: “There is public money that’s being spent. Our job is to make sure it’s spent wisely.” Walden summed up, “We could have a hearing every week for 25 weeks and then move forward or we can do one hearing now.”  

Shifting to the leaked White House proposal that reportedly had the federal government building its own 5G network, Walden said: “By the way, we are not Venezuela. We don’t need government control. We need a secure network, but I’m not sure having the federal government run it is the best” idea, he said.  

House Communications Subcommittee Chair Tennessee Republican Marsha Blackburn, said it was important to get the conversation started, highlighting guiding principles that should underpin their efforts: “Any funds for broadband in an infrastructure package should go to unserved areas. Second, the federal government should not be picking winners and losers in the marketplace; any federal support for broadband infrastructure should be competitively and technologically neutral.”

Witnesses agreed on more issues than lawmakers. Several echoed USTelecom President/CEO Jonathan Spalter, who said, “We know the private investment model works in public areas. But that breaks down in rural areas. New and direct funding is needed to supplement private investment. Public dollars should prioritize connecting un-served areas.”

Holding up a small cell, CTIA EVP Brad Gillen said current siting rules were written for macro towers and easier siting rules are needed. “The challenge we face today is that a device that takes one to two hours to install, can take one to two years to get approved.”  As an example of siting barriers, he said for last year’s Super Bowl, it cost carriers a total of $173,000 to site just 23 small cells at NRG Stadium in Houston.

Shirley Bloomfield, CEO, NTCA—The Rural Broadband Association, said one of their companies experienced a year-long delay for a project in Wyoming last year. A state office treated broadband conduit like a pipeline, she said.

Walden, who noted he had experience in the tower siting process when he owned radio stations for some 20 years said: “The point is we can streamline the siting and discussion process. It’s an analog process in the digital age.”

Bloomfield stressed the need for the FCC’s Universal Service Fund, which she called a proven mechanism to subsidize rural build-outs. “The job is not done once the network is built,” noting that networks need continual maintenance and upgrades, too. “The rates rural consumers pay are rarely enough to cover costs.”

Joanne Hovis, President, CTC Technology and Energy, said a variety of approaches can work and cautioned lawmakers not to ignore or pre-empt localities. Connecticut Consumer Counsel Elin Swanson Katz, agreed, noting that in northern Connecticut, 23 small towns are working together to ease siting for rural broadband.

Several witnesses agreed better mapping, of where broadband exists, and where it does not, is needed. Spalter, Gillen and Bloomfield credited the FCC’s pending procedure to update its Form 477 data-gathering and better coordinate results with NTIA. Bloomfield cautioned, however, that self-reporting is not enough. There must be a way to verify the accuracy of the data providers submit.

Following the hearing, the Wireless Infrastructure Association said it continues to support lawmaker’s work to remove barriers “to the responsible and sustainable deployment of wireless broadband infrastructure. The wireless industry is committed to delivering next-generation mobile connectivity to all communities, and we look forward to working with this subcommittee on closing the digital divide.”

by Leslie Stimson, Washington Bureau Chief, Inside Towers

January 31, 2018

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