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 PalloneDem chairmen urge CMS to prevent nursing homes from seizing stimulus payments Federal watchdog finds cybersecurity vulnerabilities in FCC systems Overnight Health Care — Presented by That's Medicaid — Deal on surprise medical bills faces obstacles | House GOP unveils rival drug pricing measure ahead of Pelosi vote | Justices to hear case over billions in ObamaCare payments 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 BlackburnUS lawmakers call on EU to label entire Hezbollah a terrorist organization Hillicon Valley: Trump tweet gets warning again | Australia under cyberattack | North Face pulls Facebook ads Republicans take aim at Google in fight to remove legal shield 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. DoyleFCC rejects petition to probe broadcasts of Trump coronavirus briefings Bottom Line Hillicon Valley: Trump turns up heat on Apple over gunman's phone | Mnuchin says Huawei won't be 'chess piece' in trade talks | Dems seek briefing on Iranian cyber threats | Buttigieg loses cyber chief 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 TrumpHouse panel approves 0.5B defense policy bill House panel votes against curtailing Insurrection Act powers after heated debate House panel votes to constrain Afghan drawdown, ask for assessment on 'incentives' to attack US troops MORE is expected to mention a $1.5 billion infrastructure plan during his State of the Union address on Tuesday.