Congress, More Than a Dozen States Consider Legislation to Expand Broadband Access
Most efforts aimed at increasing spending, streamlining regulations
Federal and state lawmakers are considering an array of measures aimed at bringing broadband access to the 24 million Americans who lack this service. During the current legislative session, lawmakers have enacted dozens of pieces of legislation to fund connectivity programs, direct more support to projects in underserved areas, streamline policy and procedures, and conduct needed research. These laws and other proposed bills reflect lawmakers’ recognition of how essential high-speed internet has become to peoples’ lives—and the economy.
Since January 2017, the beginning of the 115th Congress, lawmakers have addressed broadband in many bills. Here’s a breakdown of several notable measures by theme:
Funding and authorizing broadband expansion: The fiscal year 2018 spending bill that President Donald Trump signed in March included $600 million for the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s (USDA’s) “e-Connectivity Pilot Program,” which will support broadband projects in rural areas. The spending law also gives the National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA) $7.5 million to work with the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) to enhance the national broadband map, which depicts broadband availability and speed across the country.
Legislation proposed for this fiscal year would provide more funds for USDA’s e-Connectivity Pilot Program: $550 million in the House-passed version of the Department of Agriculture appropriations bill and $425 million in the Senate-passed version. Pending legislation would also maintain funding for NTIA’s map modernization effort.
The 2018 farm bill—legislation authorizing federal agriculture and rural development programs—has not yet been signed into law, but the House- and Senate-passed versions would authorize new USDA grants for rural broadband deployment projects. The Senate version also includes up to $50 million for the existing Community Connect grant program.
Bolstering research: The fiscal 2018 spending law also includes measures to bolster federal government research on broadband connectivity. It requires the FCC to issue a report to Congress on the status of broadband availability to military veterans who are low-income or live in rural areas. It also requires the FCC to establish a methodology for consistently collecting wireless coverage data about speed and reliability. And the fiscal year 2019 John S. McCain National Defense Authorization Act, which the president signed in August, requires the Government Accountability Office to conduct a study evaluating the impact of broadband speed and price on small businesses. Another measure, which has not become law, would require the Bureau of Economic Analysis to assess, analyze, and submit a biennial report to Congress regarding the effects of broadband deployment and adoption on the U.S. economy.
Streamlining federal broadband policymaking efforts: Congress is considering measures that would improve the efficiency and execution of federal efforts to expand broadband connectivity. The proposed Senate and House farm bills establish a task force within the FCC for meeting the connectivity and technology needs of precision agriculture in the U.S. The House bill also establishes minimal acceptable service standards for rural projects seeking funding from the USDA. Other bills streamline the permitting process for broadband deployment projects; establish an Office of Rural Broadband within the FCC to bolster its coordination with other federal agencies; and create an Office of Internet Connectivity and Growth within NTIA to develop training and guidance to promote broadband development in underserved communities.
In addition to these themes, Congress is also considering measures to expand access in tribal areas and bring or restore broadband to disaster-stricken areas.
Since January 2018, 19 states have enacted 26 bills related to increasing broadband availability. These laws fall within three themes: funding, regulatory reform, and exploratory research.
Funding: States are using funding and financing options to increase broadband availability, including “last mile” deployment—reaching the homes, businesses, and other entities that still lack reliable, high-speed internet service. Wyoming created a new grant program for broadband deployment and New Mexico set up a $1 million fund to connect public, tribal, and school libraries. Colorado has taken a different approach by repurposing funds for rural telephone deployment to support rural broadband deployment. States are also offering incentives to boost private sector investment. For example, Alabama and Iowa are giving internet service providers tax credits and exemptions to encourage buildout in communities with limited or no access to broadband.
Regulatory reform: States are adjusting rules and regulations to promote broadband deployment. Georgia enacted legislation directing the state technology authority to develop and implement a plan to promote the installation and maintenance of broadband services along interstates and state roads. Other states, including West Virginia and Maine, have focused on “dig once” activities, which would minimize the number of excavations required to install telecommunications infrastructure.
Research: Lawmakers are supporting efforts that will help them better understand the scope of broadband challenges and solutions in their states. Kansas, Nebraska, and Maryland have created task forces to determine best practices for deploying broadband to unserved and underserved areas. And Virginia lawmakers have asked the state’s Center for Innovative Technology to determine the viability of a statewide “dig once” policy.
Anne Stauffer is the project director and Kathryn de Wit is the manager of The Pew Charitable Trusts’ broadband research initiative.