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Lawmakers to take aim at urban, rural broadband divide

Lawmakers to take aim at urban, rural broadband divide
© Greg Nash

Lawmakers in the House are trying to tackle the “digital divide” — the disparity between internet access in highly connected urban areas and rural areas that lack fast broadband — or broadband at all.

The House Energy and Commerce Committee’s Communication and Technology subcommittee will turn its attention towards the matter during a hearing on Tuesday.

Subcommittee Chairwoman Marsha BlackburnMarsha BlackburnHillicon Valley: Global cybersecurity leaders say they feel unprepared for attack | Senate Commerce Committee advances Biden's FTC nominee Lina Khan | Senate panel approves bill that would invest billions in tech Senate Commerce Committee advances Biden's FTC nominee Lina Khan The Memo: Trump's critics face wrath of GOP base MORE (R-Tenn.), who is running for the Senate in a closely watched race, said that the issue is a priority for her and her colleagues.

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“For all of the rancor and fury of things that don’t get done in D.C., we’ve moved forward on broadband infrastructure in a bipartisan basis,” Blackburn told The Hill in an interview on Monday.

She said that it’s a priority for her that federal grants and loans for the development of infrastructure go to underserved areas in the rural community.

Despite Blackburn’s pushes, some have been skeptical of GOP efforts to bridge the digital divide. Chief among concerns is that while Republicans push for subsidies that telecommunications companies would receive for investment, they’ve targeted scaling back federal programs that would subsidize broadband access for low-income households.

Blackburn said that increased competition will address these issues, but critics have noted that there are often few options for internet service providers in most markets, and there would likely be even less in to be developed rural areas.

She argued though that the broadband space could change with the introduction of 5G, which unlike previously wireless networks, could be a viable alternative to hardwired internet connections.

“The more competition in the marketplace, the more affordable the service is going to be,” she said. “And it’s important that the legislation will be tech neutral.”

Blackburn said that she would even be interested in seeing a potential municipal internet option, like the one offered by Chattanooga, Tenn. In 2014 though, she led a bill through the House that would make it harder for states to introduce municipal broadband.

Blackburn also said that a priority for the hearing will be to address broadband mapping and push for the National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA) to have the resources it needs to make sure it can accurately update its broadband map.  Its map has served as a critical tool in helping the government decide which areas need the most help in receiving support for broadband infrastructure.