Republican members of the Senate communications, technology, innovation and infrastructure subcommittee today repeatedly voiced criticism of data the FCC is using to determine which areas lack broadband access, while Democratic members and some of the witnesses raised concerns about the lack of dedicated, direct federal funding for broadband deployment in President Trump’s infrastructure proposal.
In his opening statement, Sen. Bill Nelson (D., Fla.), the ranking minority member of the full Commerce, Science, and Transportation Committee, noted that his state includes many rural areas without broadband. “We have to close this digital divide and leave no area of this country behind,” he said, which is why Democrats want any infrastructure package to include “significant” direct federal investment in rural broadband.
Witness Gary Resnick, mayor of Wilton Manors, Fla., the only non-industry witness on the panel, said, “Cities are not the reason that millions of Americans lack the necessary infrastructure in their communities.” Instead, he said, the hurdle is that it is “simply not sufficiently profitable” for companies to deploy broadband in some areas.
Mayor Resnick urged the subcommittee to tackle federal barriers to deployment.
He also pushed back against the idea that small cell technology will address the problem of areas currently unserved by broadband, saying that it is “terrible” for covering areas with low population density.
Mayor Resnick also criticized the FCC’s Broadband Deployment Advisory Committee as dominated by industry.
Competitive Carriers Association President and Chief Executive Office Steve Berry urged Congress to provide “sufficient and predictable funding” for serving high-cost areas. He said that policy decisions should be based on accurate data and that facilities-siting and spectrum allocation need to be streamlined.
The FCC’s current map for determining areas eligible for Mobility Fund Phase II support is “so wrong that a challenge process may not be enough to correct it,” he said.
Bob DeBroux, vice president–regulatory affairs at TDS Telecom, who also testified on behalf of mid-sized telco trade group ITTA, also urged Congress to “specifically designate funds for broadband deployment,” which he said could be distributed through the FCC’s universal service support mechanisms.
CTIA Executive VP Brad Gillen said that the Streamlining Permitting to Enable Efficient Deployment of Broadband Infrastructure Act (SPEED Act) (S 1988), which subcommittee Chairman Roger Wicker (R., Miss.) introduced (TR, Oct. 20, 2017), would update the federal permitting process to enable the deployment of next-generation wireless facilities. He also applauded efforts by subcommittee ranking member Brian Schatz (D., Hawaii) and full Committee Chairman John Thune (R., S.D.) to address local siting rate structures and timelines.
NTCA Senior VP–policy Mike Romano said that “any infrastructure package should direct funding to time-tested mechanisms,” citing both the FCC’s universal service mechanisms and the Rural Utilities Service programs.
Mr. Romano said that the FCC’s map and challenge processes for broadband support are “at least a good start,” although they could be “improved.”
Mr. Romano also said that the state block grants included in the White House infrastructure proposal would need “the same guard rails” as FCC programs to ensure the funding is not used to overbuild existing broadband service.
Sen. Wicker asked Mr. Berry why the FCC’s broadband deployment data are “so wrong.”
Mr. Berry said, “The simple answer is garbage in, garbage out. It’s very clear that the FCC requested the wrong parameters to get a granular picture.”
“We said you should measure signal strength,” but the FCC rejected that approach, Mr. Berry said. “You’re going to have to challenge literally 98% of the United States,” he added.
Mr. DeBroux said, “On the wireline side, I think some good starts have been made,” and the challenge process ensured that funding did not support deployment in areas where unsubsidized broadband service was already available.
Sen. Schatz said, “It occurs to me that Democrats are unlikely to support a shifting of responsibility for infrastructure from federal to state governments. Republicans are unlikely — at least at this time — to support a straight-up $1.5 trillion” in direct federal funding.
He noted that “everybody likes universal service,” but that a shrinking base of voice telephony customers are being asked to fund growing broadband infrastructure and services. “The math doesn’t work out,” he said.
Mr. Romano said, “The FCC does have the authority … to include some kind of broadband in contribution mechanism.” He said that the current situation presents an “equity issue” because “the consumers who are paying for this are the ones who not taking advantage of broadband.”
Mr. Gillen said that wireless providers pay more in universal service contributions than the sector gets back.
Sen. Roy Blunt (R., Mo.) questioned whether 5G will support service in low-density areas, and whether it might be better to focus on wireline deployment in such areas.
Mr. Berry said that 5G transmissions “can reach up to 10 times farther than existing technologies.”
Mr. Gillen acknowledged that 5G service will be deployed in more densely populated areas first, but he added that 5G technology “will have applications that require low-band spectrum to go greater distances for technology like connected cars.”
Sens. Maggie Hassan (D., N.H.) and Sen. Cory Gardner (R., Colo.) both asked for opinions of the AIRWAVES Act they introduced last year.
Mr. Berry said, “We totally agree the AIRWAVES Act is a roadmap. We’d love to see Band 24 and I think 47 included in that.”
Sens. Hassan, Jon Tester (D., Mont.), and Dan Sullivan (R., Alaska) all said that maps of broadband deployment indicated that areas in their states are covered, while they know that those areas area not.
“We’re not talking about 4G or 3G — we don’t have any G,” Sen. Tester said. “The FCC is wrong. They screwed up.”
Sen. Sullivan said, “A lot of my communities don’t have 2G yet.”
In a statement for the hearing record, the Utilities Technology Council urged the subcommittee to consider supporting “broadband-funding programs that promote the deployment of future-proof networks which provide robust, reliable and affordable broadband services to all Americans” and “pole attachment policies that promote safety, reliability and security of electric utility infrastructure while accelerating broadband deployment.” UTC also urged the subcommittee to consider passing “rights-of-way legislation that would clarify that electric utilities may use their existing rights-of-way for communications purposes. Doing so would promote broadband deployment by preventing class-action lawsuits against electric utilities that offer these services.” —Lynn Stanton, [email protected]
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