Local communities are a key piece in the broadband puzzle

Local communities are a key piece in the broadband puzzle
© Clara Longo de Freitas/iStock

Broadband infrastructure is essential infrastructure. The COVID-19 pandemic has demonstrated the importance as well as the need for high-speed internet to connect workers to jobs, students to schools and people to one another in every community across the country. This need is not new. Internet use has been rapidly increasing over the past two decades. In 2000, 52 percent of adults in the U.S. used the internet; in 2021, that number is 93 percent.

For years, federal, state and local governments have collaborated with telecommunications companies to build broadband infrastructure to accommodate increased use. But it has not been enough to meet the growing demand. We must also respond to the growing disparities that accompany this demand in who accesses the internet, how they access it, and the quality of their connection.

The pandemic has highlighted, and at times exacerbated, these disparities. To remedy these gaps, Congress has invested in significant broadband expansion. We are continuing that work, including with a $40 billion investment through the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act.

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While these funds will help spur additional investment in and development of our broadband infrastructure, we must do more. To close the digital divide across the country, we need to support communities as they upgrade and increase broadband capabilities. One way Congress can do this is by providing cities and local governments with resources to process the expected increase in permitting applications necessary to build broadband infrastructure.

Local governments play a critical and direct role facilitating these upgrades and new deployments through their zoning and permitting functions. The city of Houston has become a model for prioritizing critical investments in broadband infrastructure. It has streamlined processes for broadband deployment and issuing permits. Ultimately, by improving permitting processes, Houston has facilitated significant investments at a time when access to the internet is critical to every aspect of life.

Recognizing that communities across the country could benefit from additional resources, I introduced H.R. 5058, the Broadband Incentives for Communities Act, to provide grants to hire and train employees, purchase software, and upgrade capabilities to facilitate broadband upgrades and deployment. To ensure broadband providers can build the networks that are critical to meet the rapidly increasing connectivity needs of all communities, we must make it a federal priority to provide local governments with the additional resources they need to process requests for zoning and permitting approval.

My bill establishes a voluntary grant program that relies on incentives to promote broadband deployment. To be eligible for grant funding, applicants are asked to demonstrate that they have adopted certain commonsense measures that facilitate deployment. The head of the National Telecommunications and Information Administration will consider and process grant applications and award funds to eligible jurisdictions. The bill also establishes a Local Broadband Advisory Council to develop solutions to ongoing challenges to deployment faced by local governments and infrastructure providers in unserved and underserved areas.

We have a unique opportunity to capitalize on our federal investments and close the digital divide. To do that successfully, we must work together. Local governments are critical partners in achieving nationwide high-speed broadband. My bill will help ensure these crucial funds are efficiently and effectively used, and that communities across the country obtain the benefits of this essential infrastructure.

Lizzie Fletcher represents the 7th District of Texas and is a member of the Energy and Commerce Committee.