The COVID-19 pandemic has altered nearly every aspect of American life, but changes to the way students learn and adults work has presented unique challenges to the U.S. broadband network.

The Senate Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation heard testimony today from broadband leaders on the state of broadband amid the pandemic. While the demand for broadband access was already high before the pandemic, as students turn to distance learning, adults begin teleworking fulltime and doctors look to use telehealth, affordable, high-quality internet access becomes even more essential.

Gene Kimmelman, senior advisor at the think tank Public Knowledge, described it quite bluntly, broadband is “an essential service without universal access.”

“More than 42 million Americans don’t have the ability to purchase broadband because it is not available,” Kimmelman said. “To remedy this problem, the Federal Communications Commission [FCC] has estimated that it will cost $80 billion to deploy broadband nationwide. Congress must provide sufficient funding for flexible and efficient deployment strategies that help connect unserved and underserved individuals across the United States.”

With the increased demand for broadband services, the gaps in connectivity and broadband access have become increasingly clear.

“As the country comes together to face the largest public health crisis of our lifetime, it is now painfully clear that there are many areas of the country where more work needs to be done to provide and extend wireless services,” said Steven K. Berry, president and CEO of the Competitive Carriers Association. “We cannot ignore the undeniable fact that the digital divide persists, both in terms of areas of the country without access to broadband and in individual consumers’ ability to maintain broadband connections in this challenging economic climate … Unfortunately, we have confirmed nearly overnight that access to broadband is imperative to support all aspects of everyday life, from distance learning to remote work, healthcare, grocery shopping, family and virtual social gatherings, and more.”

The witnesses agreed that closing the digital divide and ensuring that all Americans have broadband access is essential, and all offered steps Congress and the Federal government can take to improve access.

Kimmelman further stressed that Congress needs to ensure that funding isn’t just helping rural areas, but is also connecting underserved urban areas. He described the struggles cities face and  “digital redlining.”

“Unlike rural areas, where providers receive a subsidy to serve a high-cost area, no subsidies exist to encourage providers to serve or upgrade urban neighborhoods despite the perceived lack of profit,” he testified. “Either we should build new programs explicitly designed to create competing providers in these underserved neighborhoods or legislation should require universal service standards or other anti-redlining measures enforced at either the state level or by the FCC.”

Kimmelman also offered a proposal that was a stark departure from the industry witnesses, he called on Congress to prioritize funding for municipal broadband. Drawing on the telecom industry’s hesitancy to invest in unprofitable urban areas, he said Congress should “encourage non-commercial entities to provide broadband access.” He continued, “These entities usually provide more affordable offerings than for-profit providers because they want to deploy broadband as a public service. Offering affordable broadband can be a natural fit for these entities because they already have experience running utilities, like water and electric.”

However, he explained that half of all states have blocks or bans on municipal broadband. “These policies harm competition, and Federal competition policy should supersede them,” he argued.

Turning to what telecom providers need during the pandemic, witnesses praised how the industry has responded and offered up plans to help sustain the industry’s efforts.

Barry praised FCC’s Keep Americans Connected Pledge. Telecom companies signing on to the pledge agree to not terminate services for residential or small business customers due to their inability to pay due to the coronavirus pandemic and to waive any late fees that these customers incur. However, he also highlighted the struggles faced by small telecommunication companies.

“Small carriers that serve rural areas are experiencing many of the same economic challenges as every small business,” he explained. “These carriers want to help keep staff on payroll, keep networks up and running, and help keep their customers connected. But reduced revenues are starting to have a real impact and add strain on their ability to do all three.”

He called on Congress to support the Stay Connected Voucher proposal. The proposal would provide qualified households monthly vouchers during the pandemic to pay for communications services bills.  Upon receiving the voucher, telecom providers could receive reimbursement from a fund established by the voucher legislation.

Shirley Bloomfield, CEO of NTCA – The Rural Broadband Association, also called for Congress to pass the Keeping Critical Connections Act. Bloomfield explained that the legislation would “direct the FCC to create a temporary emergency fund for reimbursing small broadband providers only when an operator provides households with students with free or discounted broadband or free upgrades to meet distance learning needs or keeps low-income customers connected who cannot pay their broadband bill due to the economic impact of the COVID-19 national emergency.”

Looking forward to a post-pandemic world, Jonathan Spalter, president and CEO of USTelecom – The Broadband Association, urged Congress to capitalize on this moment to achieve universal broadband access.

“One of the undeniable lessons from COVID-19 is that the United States needs to once and for all roll up its sleeves and provide the funding necessary for ubiquitous, futureproof broadband,” he said. “We’ve pursued this public policy goal for some time, but incremental approaches with limited budgets, combined with rapid redefinitions of how we use and integrate broadband into our lives has left too many Americans still without the access they need.”

To that end, Spalter said, “Congress should adopt a legislative framework that capitalizes on the work, preparation, and foresight of the government agencies it has already charged with meeting our nation’s broadband needs.” He said that Congress needs to focus on programs that are “implemented deliberately” and are “well thought out with both government and industry input, and that can provide nearly immediate results.” He cautioned against “hastily standing-up unproven new programs in the face of an emergency, which in the recent past has shown to produce mixed results, duplication, and financial inefficiencies at best.”

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Kate Polit
Kate Polit
Kate Polit is MeriTalk SLG's Assistant Copy & Production Editor, covering Cybersecurity, Education, Homeland Security, Veterans Affairs