Congress Proposes Access Broadband Act

April 25, 2019 | by Andrew Regitsky

Congress Proposes Access Broadband Act

It looks like the government is getting behind industry efforts to make viable broadband available to rural consumers and businesses. For too long the FCC and the industry have participated in the charade that broadband maps and Form 477 provider responses are indicative of actual broadband service instead of an artifact of census block measurement, which vastly overstates broadband availability.

The maps and Form 477 will finally be improved by the Broadband Mapping Initiative, in which a consortium of companies will measure actual broadband availability house by house, starting with a pilot program in Virginia and Missouri.

Belatedly, the FCC will do its part, recently announcing it will create a $20.4 billion rural broadband fund that will be used to help build out high-speed Internet access over the next decade. The Commission believes the “Rural Digital Opportunity Fund” will allow the connection to “up to gigabit-speed” broadband for as many as four million homes and small businesses.

Now Congress will finally do its part, bringing back a bill that failed in 2018, but now has bipartisan support, called the Access Broadband Act (ABA). The ABA is designed to foster the development and growth of broadband resources for businesses as well as underserved urban and rural communities. The goal is to better marshal federal resources to help companies bring broadband access to all. Here is a summary of the ABA.

Advancing Critical Connectivity Expands Service, Small Business Resources, Opportunities, Access, and Data Based on Assessed Need and Demand Act or the ACCESS BROADBAND Act

This bill requires the Department of Commerce to establish the Office of Internet Connectivity and Growth within the National Telecommunications and Information Administration.

The office shall:
  • connect with communities that need access to high-speed Internet and improved digital inclusion efforts,
  • hold regional workshops to share best practices and effective strategies for promoting broadband access and adoption,
  • develop targeted broadband training and presentations for various demographic communities through media,
  • develop and distribute publications providing guidance to communities for expanding broadband access and adoption, and
  • track construction and use of and access to any broadband infrastructure built using federal support.

The office must report annually: (1) a description of the office's work, (2) the number of U.S. residents who received broadband as result of federal broadband programs and the Universal Service Fund program, and (3) an estimate of the economic impact of such broadband deployment efforts on the local economy.

The office shall consult with any agency offering a federal broadband support program in order to streamline the application process for financial assistance or grants and create one application that may be submitted to apply for all federal broadband support programs.

The office, any agency that offers a federal broadband support program, and the Federal Communications Commission through the Universal Service Fund shall coordinate to ensure that broadband support is being distributed in an efficient, technology-neutral, and financially sustainable manner.

No additional funds are authorized to carry out this bill.

We support the ABA. Not because we believe Congressional involvement will necessarily improve broadband deployment on its own. Rather, it will put continued pressure on the FCC and broadband providers to get it right and finally provide broadband at viable speeds to rural customers.

Some oppose federal involvement, arguing the state governments are closer to the communities involved and they should each coordinate with providers. However, no company could efficiently interact with 50 broadband offices, each eventually establishing their own policies and requirement.

Others oppose all government intervention, claiming that the free market is more efficient than the federal government. For example, look at how inefficient the government was when “Obamacare” was introduced. We are sympathetic to this argument but strongly believe the ABA can help make carriers and the FCC accountable for their efforts to improve broadband deployment. Up to now their joint efforts, while partially successful, have left too many Americans without workable broadband service. It is well past the time for that to end.