The demand for reliable and affordable broadband service has skyrocketed in the last year as Americans began relying on the internet for telework, distancing learning, and telehealth during the COVID-19 pandemic. However, many Americans – both urban and rural – have lacked either access or sufficient connection strength during the health crisis.
Expanding affordable broadband access is a rare issue with bipartisan support on the Hill. During today’s Senate Commerce, Science, and Transportation Committee hearing on Federal efforts to expand broadband access, senators from both parties joined together to express concerns over expanding access, ensuring accurate broadband connectivity maps, and figuring out how best to spend Federal broadband funding. Committee Chairwoman Maria Cantwell, D-Wash., even remarked that she believed all 100 senators share concerns over rapidly expanding broadband access.
The hearing addressed existing Federal programs focused on broadband access, many of which were created as a result of the pandemic, including the Keep Americans Connected Pledge, Emergency Broadband Benefit Program, ReConnect Program, and billions in funding in the American Rescue Plan. While lawmakers praised those programs, they all agreed more needs to be done to ensure adequate access.
The committee heard from Dr. Christopher Ali, associate professor in the Department of Media Studies at the University of Virginia; Justin Forde, senior director of government relations at Midco; Michael O’Rielly, former commissioner of the Federal Communications Commission (FCC); and Jon Wilkins, partner at Quadra Partners.
Much of the hearing focused on what the FCC has defined as broadband speed – 25 Mbps in download speeds and 3 Mbps in upload speeds. Ali called that speed definition “woefully inadequate” for the average family of four where two adults are working from home and two children are attending K-12 online. In addition to it being unsuitable for families, he also pointed out that it prevents businesses – especially rural businesses – from embracing emerging technologies. He specifically cited the precision agriculture industry as a field that requires modern broadband speeds. Ali argued for establishing a goal of 100/100 Mbps speeds, or symmetrical upload and download speed.
O’Rielly disagreed with Ali’s assessment, both with his overall opinion on the 25/3 Mbps and the claim that precision agriculture specifically needs much faster speeds. O’Rielly described the existing speed definition as “incredibly functional,” and said he’s seen data that suggests users could have six simultaneous Zoom calls with that speed. Forde also supported O’Rielly’s position that 25/3 Mbps was sufficient for the average family. Additionally, he argued against needing symmetrical speeds, saying that even during the year-long surge in teleworking and telelearning, download demand remains significantly higher than upload demand.
The committee also touched on how long it will take the FCC to update its broadband service maps. As recently as last year, the FCC said it could get the maps updated in just a few months. However, Sen. Roger Wicker, R-Miss., ranking member of the committee, said the FCC is now saying it could take upwards of two years, which he said was unacceptable.
O’Rielly said if the committee wants the mapping completed sooner, it needs to make mapping the FCC’s top priority. However, he demurred when Sen. Wicker asked if he believed it could be completed in a few months.
Both Forde and Wilkins touched on the role the private sector plays in expanding broadband access, and stressed the importance of working with Federal, state, and local authorities.
Forde said broadband companies need to be “focused like a laser” on underserved areas and get broadband deployed “as soon as possible.” Further, Forde said, “we know where those areas are and we know how to reach them.”
Pivoting away from the hearing’s focus on rural broadband access, Wilkins touched on issues facing more urban and suburban areas. When asked about Federal broadband grants to states for use in urban and suburban areas, Wilkins said those users don’t typically face a connectivity problem, but rather an affordability problem. Federal grants on a state-specific level would allow states to help urban and suburban residents afford the broadband they need, he said.