Senators Focus on Broadband Gaps During Pandemic

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Congress, the FCC and broadband providers must act fast amid the COVID-19 outbreak to identify broadband coverage gaps and then spend funds and cut red tape to fill those gaps, Senators said during a Wednesday hearing on how the virus is affecting broadband during COVID-19.

Senate Commerce Committee Chairman Roger Wicker, (R-MS) focused on the lack of broadband in rural and tribal areas. Senators from both parties are concerned about the ability of people in these areas to access telehealth and remote learning, reported Law360.  

The pandemic has triggered huge spike broadband use and the need for access, Wicker said, making it imperative to fix inaccurate coverage maps. He also highlighted what he considers a “regulatory framework that fosters broadband development” by increasing access to permits in a timely manner. 

Witnesses urged more federal subsidies for broadband. Competitive Carriers Association President/CEO Steve Berry said its painfully clear America has a digital divide. He applauded the FCC for taking some swift actions, including temporarily tapping into unused spectrum, to address the problem. Connectivity is critical and “worth additional investment,” Berry said.

Berry recommended that federal agencies be required to use updated broadband maps and a “meaningful challenge processes” to ensure that unserved areas are accurately identified. The FCC uses a challenge process to allow stakeholders to identify what they say are mapping inaccuracies.

Shirley Bloomfield, chief executive officer of NTCA-The Rural Broadband Association, told senators that using existing broadband programs is the best way of getting the most immediate return on investment while avoiding confusion and potential interagency conflicts. In the long-term, she said the nation needs a coherent and coordinated national broadband infrastructure policy. “So that we are not back here again someday, staring at the next crisis and wondering why some customers lack broadband altogether and why other customers have unreliable access that does not enable effective use of virtual private networks or distance learning platforms.”

From industry’s point of view, the U.S. needs not just public investment, but fewer wireless infrastructure permitting barriers, according to the account. USTelecom President/CEO Jonathan Spalter said America remains on the cutting edge of the internet, however, and the COVID-19 crisis will only cause the telecom industry to redouble its build-out efforts. “Never do we stand taller than in a time of crisis,” Spalter said. “As the world shuts down, the U.S. internet remains open.”

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