Senators introduce bipartisan bill to bring high speed wireless to rural America

Senators introduce bipartisan bill to bring high speed wireless to rural America
© Greg Nash

A pair of senators introduced bipartisan legislation on Tuesday that aims to improve wireless networks in underserved rural areas of America.

In Sens. Cory GardnerCory GardnerGun control group alleges campaign finance violations in lawsuit against NRA Colorado Supreme Court signs off on new congressional map Colorado remap plan creates new competitive district MORE (R-Colo.) and Maggie Hassan’s (D-N.H.) Advancing Innovation and Reinvigorating Widespread Access to Viable Electromagnetic Spectrum (AIRWAVES) bill, they propose opening up spectrum space for commercial licensed and unlicensed use with the hope that doing so will drive down wireless costs and increase its accessibility.

Gardner and Hassan say they believe this will bring increased broadband access to rural areas, whose connectivity coverage rates and speed lag severely compared to urban areas.

“This legislation offers innovative ways to avoid a spectrum crunch, pave the way for 5G service, and provide critical resources to rural America to continue rural buildout in unserved and underserved areas throughout Colorado and the country,” Gardner said in a statement with the bill’s release.

Different bands of spectrum — ranges of radio frequencies — are used right now to transmit audio, video and data by different groups. Broadcasters, for example, transmit TV signals over spectrum bands, while wireless providers use them as a means to distribute wireless broadband.  

Some technology trade associations praised the introduction of the new bill, which they argue is needed to help rural communities. In a statement, the Information Technology Industry Council’s (ITI) Vice President of Government Affairs Vince Jesaitis applauded the bill, saying that it would help the rollout of 5G high speed wireless.

“This legislation provides a much needed long-term plan to unlock valuable licensed spectrum as demand for wireless data and content continues to skyrocket,” echoed Kelly Cole Senior Vice President for Government Affairs at CTIA, a trade association representing wireless companies.

Other observers appreciate the bill’s sentiment but say that they would like see improvements as it moves through the legislative process.

“Senators Gardner and Hassan deserve credit for proposing an ambitious spectrum pipeline bill that recognizes America’s wireless future will require opening access to substantially more unlicensed, licensed and shared spectrum,” said Michael Calabrese, director of New America's Wireless Future Program.

Calabrese critiqued Gardner and Hassan’s bill, though, for focusing too much on a one-time auction of spectrum that wireless broadband can be distributed on. He contended that this would not be as effective as opening as other, additional underutilized bands of spectrum.

Lawmakers and government officials in D.C. have made bridging the connectivity gap between rural and urban portions of America an increasingly large priority over the past year. Senators including Amy KlobucharAmy KlobucharKlobuchar confident spending bill will be finished before Christmas Sunday shows preview: New COVID-19 variant emerges; supply chain issues and inflation persist The Hill's 12:30 Report: Biden renominates Powell as Fed chair MORE (D-Minn.) and Shelley Moore CapitoShelley Wellons Moore CapitoRepublicans struggle to save funding for Trump's border wall White House looks to rein in gas prices ahead of busy travel season Bipartisan success in the Senate signals room for more compromise MORE (R-W.Va.) have advocated for deploying better broadband in rural portions of their states.

At the Federal Communications Commission, Chairman Ajit Pai has pushed for solutions that would make it easier for broadband companies to increase access to internet in rural areas. Many companies wouldn’t otherwise have financial incentive to create the expensive infrastructure to bring broadband to such areas.