Lawmakers split over how to expand rural broadband

Lawmakers split over how to expand rural broadband
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Lawmakers on Tuesday sparred over ways to bring more investment to rural broadband services.

The House Energy and Commerce Subcommittee on Communications and Technology heard from experts on the problems with building out rural broadband.

Rep. 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.), the subpanel's chair, said government needed to complement private investment not compete against it.

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She criticized a Democratic bill from Rep. Anna EshooAnna Georges EshooSenate panel advances bill targeting online child sexual abuse Why drug costs for older Americans should be capped in pandemic's wake Short-term health plans leave consumers on the hook for massive medical costs, investigation finds MORE (Calif.) and others, the Community Broadband Act, that would allow local communities to invest money in building their own networks. 

But Republicans have questioned allowing local government funds to be used for broadband without better oversight.

“One of the bills that does cause me concern is the Community Broadband Act which I think would threaten to undo much of the progress that is being made across the country,” Blackburn said.

“And the bill is essentially a further-reaching version of the FCC’s failed 2015 municipal broadband order which basically preempted the fiscally responsible measures that Tennessee had put in place regarding municipal networks.”

Eshoo defended the bill.

“This is holding back local communities from creating a choice; in most cases, it’s much cheaper, too,” she said.

Eshoo said state legislatures are “screwing” local communities that want to invest in their own networks. She said many Americans, even those in some parts of Silicon Valley — the center of the country's tech industry, have trouble accessing broadband.

“When at least a third is either underserved or not served in the second decade of the 21st century, that’s a major issue for our country,” she said.

Other lawmakers echoed that sentiment.

“I think it’s incredibly important that rural America be treated the same way as the rest of America,” Rep. Leonard LanceLeonard LanceGun debate to shape 2020 races GOP fears Trump backlash in suburbs Bottom Line MORE (R-N.J.) said.

Democratic Rep. Frank Pallone (D-N.J.), though, blamed Republicans for the lack of action on infrastructure.

“Unfortunately, the administration and my Republican colleagues have placed infrastructure legislation on the backburner behind its tax scam that benefits large corporations and the wealthiest few,” Pallone said.

Lawmakers heard from industry experts as well as small town business owners.

Tom Stroup of the Satellite Industry Association touted the advantages of satellite-based internet coverage.

All of the panelists pushed for more competition in broadband services.

Suzanne Coker Craig, a former commissioner in Pinetops, N.C. and a small business owner, said residents in her town benefitted when a neighboring locality build up their own municipal broadband network.

But Craig said, the state legislature placed restrictions on the ability to share that network with other towns.

"Our own state legislature has constantly fought to disconnect us and take away the best economic, educational and lifestyle benefit we have had in 50 years.”

“I think that these state legislatures are undermining local municipalities from coming up with their own solutions,” Eshoo said.