Congress should stand for rural America by enhancing broadband connectivity

Congress should stand for rural America by enhancing broadband connectivity
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The "forgotten men and women" of rural America may be consigned into further oblivion — that is, unless Congress swiftly intervenes to protect their connectivity.

It seems that Washington bureaucrats are unknowingly playing a game of give-and-take with the Rust Belt. These decision-makers are moving forward with a plan that will fix one of the region's core problems while creating another one of equal magnitude. The only difference is that the new complication will take a stab at the heart of its culture.

It is no secret that the Midwest is severely lacking in wireless connectivity. Last year, then-Federal Communications Commission chair Tom Wheeler expressed frustration with how often these "dead patches" cripple their small businesses, deter tourists, and even prevent rural residents from dialing 911 during critical emergencies. Frequently dropped calls are discouraging enough, but this connectivity problem takes on another dynamic when considering how human lives are at stake.  


Each year, it seems that the issue only gets worse. For instance, just months ago, service was cut off for 19,000 phone lines across 13 states due to cost concerns. "Now we are left with very few choices, none of them with good service," one customer said in a statement to Ars Technica. "I guess small-town America means nothing to these people."


Last year, the FCC valiantly acted to ensure the deck does not remain rigged against one section of the population forever. It opened the bidding process for its first ever "broadband incentive auction," where companies voluntarily sold their space on the airwaves back to the FCC. This year, the commission finished auctioning this "spectrum" to those interested in addressing pressing 21st-century needs, including bolstering cellular networks across the country.

While this move may seem like an unequivocal win for rural America on its face, there is a concerning oversight that must be fixed by Congress – and fast.

Naturally, many affected broadcasters must find new channel space because of the repack’s interference with their airwaves. That’s why before the incentive auction, Congress rightfully established the Television Broadcaster Relocation Fund — to ensure a smooth transition process for impacted television stations.

Unfortunately, the government underestimated the impact the move would have on many of these bystanders. As it stands now, government reimbursements are not projected to match relocation costs. This means a higher likelihood that very soon viewers will begin losing access to their local stations for weeks on end. Sen. Jerry MoranGerald (Jerry) MoranMcConnell, Grassley at odds over Trump-backed drug bill Senators inch forward on federal privacy bill Hillicon Valley: Dueling bills set stage for privacy debate | Google co-founders step down from parent company | Advocates rally for self-driving car bill | Elon Musk defamation trial begins | Lawsuit accuses TikTok of sharing data with China MORE (R-Kansas) is "very concerned that rural America will be disproportionately harmed if Congress does not take action” — and rightfully so.

Even some of Washington’s most conservative bureaucrats are aware of the need to increase the funds needed to prevent stations going off the air. For example, in testimony to Congress, Ajit Pai, President TrumpDonald John TrumpThe Hill's Morning Report - Sponsored by AdvaMed - House panel expected to approve impeachment articles Thursday Democrats worried by Jeremy Corbyn's UK rise amid anti-Semitism Warren, Buttigieg duke it out in sprint to 2020 MORE's FCC chairman, said he expects “it would be necessary, if broadcasters are going to be harmless in this repack, that Congress would have to provide additional funding."

While blacked-out television seems to be the focus of congressional rectification efforts, it is by no means the only one that needs addressing. Some members seem unaware that many radio stations will lose their tower placement and be at equal risk of going “dark” during the repack. In what seems to be a simple oversight, radio stations were not accounted for in the auction funds that were set aside to ensure stations remain on the air during the repack. Estimates show that 678 FM stations are at risk because of the spectrum auction. If Congress does not quickly remedy this oversight, millions of local radio listeners could lose access to their local stations during the repack.

If action is not taken, Middle America will be harmed the most. Due to having large swaths of open land and a lack of public transportation, rural communities spend a significant amount of time commuting by car. They depend on the radio for their daily life.

For the Rust Belt, the radio's utility extends far beyond the standard uses of news, traffic, and weather. They use it for hours each day on "swap meets," where local vendors connect with buyers over the air. They depend on it to hear local grain prices, livestock cost fluctuations, and even obituaries. The radio has become a central part of their culture, and it should not disappear even for even a short amount of time because of Washington's interference.

Several bipartisan congressional bills, from Sen. Jerry Moran's (R-Kansas) Viewer and Listener Protection Act to similar legislation from Rep. Frank Pallone (D-N.J.) and Reps. Bill Flores (R-Texas) and Gene Green (D-Texas), have already been introduced to fix across-the-board connectivity problems, both for television and radio. While differing slightly in approach, they will all ensure that no American is left behind.

This is not a government handout; Congress always intended that local consumers would not lose their favorite channels as the government attempted to expand wireless service. Unfortunately, the scope of the problem was underestimated and radio was overlooked. Fixing the problem should not be controversial given that the incentive auction yielded nearly $20 billion, including $7 billion for the federal government. Rectifying these wrongs will require just a small fraction of the auction’s profit.

Rural America’s culture is too important to pawn away through bureaucratic fiat. Members should not let good policy go to waste by refusing to work out unforeseen kinks. Middle America is counting on them to do the right thing.

Denison Smith is chairman of Longevity Health Foundation, a new start-up devoted to lowering health care costs through research and education. Smith is a former assistant attorney general for the state of Idaho, staffer for Sen. James McClure (R-Idaho), and trustee of the Reason Foundation. He has over three decades of experience in investment banking, including as the former regional vice president of the Pioneer Fund of Boston, the fourth oldest mutual fund in the United States.