Last week, Klobuchar, Clyburn introduced comprehensive broadband infrastructure legislation to expand access to affordable high-speed internet
WASHINGTON - Today, at a Senate Commerce Committee Hearing titled “Recent Federal Actions to Expand Broadband: Are We Making Progress?,” U.S. Senator Amy Klobuchar (D-MN) highlighted the urgent need to expand high-speed internet access across the U.S. Klobuchar emphasized the importance of passing the Accessible, Affordable Internet for All Act, legislation she introduced last week with House Majority Whip James E. Clyburn (D-SC), to invest over $94 billion to build high-speed broadband infrastructure in unserved and underserved communities to close the digital divide and ensure Americans have internet connectivity to learn and work from home, access telehealth services, and stay connected to loved ones.
Klobuchar also highlighted her bipartisan legislation with Senator Cramer, the Keeping Critical Connections Act, to establish a $2 billion fund at the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) to ensure that students and low-income families have continued access to critical internet connectivity during the coronavirus pandemic. In addition, Klobuchar raised the critical need for accurate broadband data as we plan for broadband deployment. Her bipartisan legislation with Ranking Member Wicker and Senators Peters and Thune, the Broadband DATA Act, would help the accuracy of the FCC’s broadband data maps, which was signed into law in March 2020.
While questioning expert witnesses, Klobuchar pressed on the need for this funding to bridge the digital divide and support students, low-income families, small businesses, as well as minority and rural communities nationwide. In response, Dr. Christopher Ali, Associate Professor in the Department of Media Studies at the University of Virginia, noted, “I think all too often we think about the digital divide as being one divide, as a divide between rural America and urban America, but as we’ve learned in the last few years, the real divide is...about race, it’s about income, it is about geography, it’s about affordability, it’s about students, so there are multiple digital divides.”
Senator Cantwell: Senator Klobuchar, your state has been mentioned, you’ve been mentioned...
Senator Klobuchar: Very exciting day for me and it’s St. Patrick’s day so we’re feeling good.
Senator Cantwell: Good. Well.
Senator Klobuchar: Alright, well thank you very much, Chairwoman, and thank you Senator Wicker as well for both of your leadership on this. I think we all know the pandemic has put one big magnifying glass on this problem that we all know existed and having been to Iceland, I just don’t understand why they have better internet than we have in America -- that you can reach corners of Iceland over volcanoes and you still can’t reach with high-speed internet parts of Southern Minnesota or Northern Minnesota. That’s how I go into this. I think it’s so important when we’ve got kids that are having to learn the mute button to learn to read and parents with their toddlers on their knees and their laptops on their desk and we know that this pandemic as we see this lighthouse in front of us that we’re going to get through this we still know that it’s forever changed the way people are going to communicate and we can’t have haves and have nots. So I’ll start with the bill that I’m leading with Representative Clyburn. I’m so proud we have six members of this committee on the bill. I’ll start with you, Dr. Ali. Could you talk about the need for forward-looking with broadband? You mentioned precision agriculture and they need to help small businesses, and why we need this kind of funding for once and for all to get through this?
Dr. Ali: Absolutely, thank you very much for the question. I like to think about when we think about high performance broadband particularly in rural America, we have five pillars. We’ve got pillars for telehealth, education, we know that there is a great point -- one great point between separating those students who have broadband and who don’t. We know that those folks are struggling with vaccines, to sign up for vaccines without a broadband connection. We also know that high-performance broadband attracts businesses. I was doing some work in Rock County, Minnesota, and for a brief point they had attracted a shrimp company--
Senator Klobuchar: Yes, I am well aware of this issue.
Dr. Ali: And they were attracted there because they had fiber. They had fiber in the ground, in fact, Rock County’s the most connected county in Minnesota, so I think that, you know, for all of these reasons, small businesses, working from home, studying from home, the 1001 definition that then also the $80 billion for deployment is absolutely crucial.
Senator Klobuchar: Right and you mentioned how getting to underserved areas is so important, and Chair Cantwell I have a letter from the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human rights which represents over 200 national organizations, expressing support for my broadband infrastructure with Majority Whip Clyburn, the Accessible, Affordable Internet for All Act, which I’d like to submit to the record.
Chairwoman Cantwell: Without objection.
Senator Klobuchar: Thank you very much. Briefly on that, because I have questions for other witnesses. Dr. Ali, what this divide is when it comes to race, when it comes to smaller towns, and the like.
Dr. Ali: Well we know, I think all too often we think about the digital divide as being one divide, as a divide between rural America and urban America, but as we’ve learned in the last few years, the real divide is intersectional. It’s about race, it’s about income, it is about geography, it’s about affordability, it’s about students, so there are multiple digital divides. One of the ones plaguing rural communities the most is of course the divide in infrastructure. But that does not mean that there are not problems with affordability, that does not mean there is not a problem with availability and computer use and digital literacy. So this needs to be -- this is an opportunity for us to really attack all of these issues. The digital divide is not a zero-sum game...
Senator Klobuchar: Exactly.
Dr. Ali: ...where we fund one and not fund the other. It has to happen at the same time.
Senator Klobuchar: Okay, thank you. Mr. Wilkins, one of the bills we have out there that is bipartisan -- 15 democrats, 13 republicans -- Senator Cramer and I have introduced which focuses on internet services to students, rural, and low-income families and that is a $2 billion fund. Could you just very -- like in thirty seconds here -- mention the importance of that bill?
Mr. Wilkins: Absolutely, and in my mind, that’s especially important because it actually gets at the deployment challenge as well. If you’re building a broadband network in a rural area, you actually are very, very interested in the ability of families in that area to afford service on your network. And I think funding to support that kind of distanced learning is a very important part of the -- frankly, the revenue side of the business case for deploying in rural areas.
Senator Klobuchar: Okay, exactly because some areas -- some providers are doing this, some aren’t. As you have pointed out, Mr. Forde, which I appreciate and I appreciate your work in Minnesota. Last question is along the lines of what my friend Senator Wicker was talking about, this is our bill and we’re proud to have several others on it as well, the Broadband Data Act, as he’s mentioned, it has been passed. Just talk about this would help us despite everything good you’ve done in Minnesota, we still have areas that aren’t covered and we’ve got to make the case for where we need the money and where we don’t. Mr. Forde?
Mr. Forde: Yes, thank you very much, Senator. Pleasure to do a lot of great work across the state of Minnesota. You know we’re -- I have an excellent GIS department. We stand ready to provide that data and we love working closely with the State of Minnesota and the Broadband Office. If there is ever a data discrepancy, right down to the address level, they call us, we certainly get that worked out and make sure we know the exact areas that lack access to broadband and really like the way that their office is very surgical in attacking areas. They pulled out all of the RDOF areas from their latest grant round to ensure that federal funding would not be duplicative with their state funding and you have an excellent challenge process with their grants as well. There was a grant that we applied for and the provider agreed to upgrade their service and we did not get. There was another instance where we applied -- or another provider provided for a grant for an area the Midco was going to build with private capital in 2022 and they pulled that grant so that would just be using private capital so really like the way that they’re really focused right down to the address level and work very, very closely with companies who have this data from excellent GIS departments to ensure that the funding is targeted and--
Senator Klobuchar: Exactly.
Mr. Forde: I think we’re able to implement these things at a federal level that will help.
Senator Klobuchar: And I think Senator Wicker sees this. We’ve got to do both things at once because once we get the money, we want to target it, and good to see you, Former Commissioner.
Chairwoman Cantwell: Thank you for your leadership again, Senator Klobuchar, very much appreciate it.
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