House lawmakers clash over broadband infrastructure

House lawmakers clash over broadband infrastructure
© Greg Nash

Lawmakers expressed support across party lines for efforts to bolster broadband infrastructure during a House Energy and Commerce Committee hearing on Tuesday; however, Democrats and Republicans clashed on how to best approach this goal.

“Despite this rare consensus, Republicans on this committee have decided to unveil a series of partisan bills that don’t address the real problems,” said the committee’s top-ranking Democrat, Frank Pallone Jr.Frank Joseph PalloneTop Trump health official warned against controversial ObamaCare changes in private memo Top Trump health official warned against controversial ObamaCare changes in private memo First major 'Medicare for All' hearing sharpens attacks on both sides MORE (N.J.).

“They turn bipartisan agreements on their head, unnecessarily pitting urban versus rural, industry versus local governments, and broadband access versus our environment,” he continued.

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Communications and technology subcommittee Chairwoman Marsha BlackburnMarsha BlackburnDemocrats detail new strategy to pressure McConnell on election security bills Democrats detail new strategy to pressure McConnell on election security bills Election security bills face GOP buzzsaw MORE (R-Tenn.) explained the undergirding principle of the 25 bills up for consideration at the hearing as preventing the government from “picking winners and losers in the [broadband] marketplace.”

The subcommittee’s top Democrat, Mike DoyleMichael (Mike) F. DoyleHouse Democrats seek bipartisan working group on net neutrality Hillicon Valley: Trump takes flak for not joining anti-extremism pact | Phone carriers largely end sharing of location data | Huawei pushes back on ban | Florida lawmakers demand to learn counties hacked by Russians | Feds bust 0M cybercrime group Phone carriers tell feds they have mostly stopped sharing location data MORE (Pa.), criticized the scope of the hearing and said Republicans are moving too quickly.

“We are considering twenty-five bills at this hearing. I don’t remember a time when this committee held a hearing on so many bills with a single panel of witnesses,” Doyle said. “We are simply not giving these bills the time and expertise required for the members of this committee to fully consider each of these bills and its ramifications.”

During the hearing, witnesses recalled different stories they had heard of students in rural areas traveling to nearby McDonald’s and waiting near other buildings to try to get Wi-Fi access in order to complete their homework.

Representatives from the telecommunications and broadband industry agreed that broadband options in rural areas are significantly lacking but said they want governments to subsidize their work.

“What we do agree is that we need funding for areas where there is not a business case to build broadband,” said Jonathan Spalter, president of the telecommunications lobbying group USTelecom.

Spalter and other telecommunications representatives said their companies don’t build internet infrastructure in many rural areas because it's too costly. They noted that on top of this, the small population of such areas mean that more costly broadband buildouts have fewer customers, making the return on their investment small.

“Those high-cost areas require a partner in government,” Spalter said.

Efforts in Congress to expand broadband infrastructure for underserved rural areas have gained attention over the past year as anticipation has increased over the prospect of an infrastructure overhaul bill that could fund rural broadband buildouts.

A concrete path forward on any legislation has not yet materialized though.

President TrumpDonald John TrumpGOP senator introduces bill to hold online platforms liable for political bias Rubio responds to journalist who called it 'strange' to see him at Trump rally Rubio responds to journalist who called it 'strange' to see him at Trump rally MORE is expected to mention a $1.5 billion infrastructure plan during his State of the Union address on Tuesday.