- Legislators in Congress have brought back a bipartisan bill designed to increase access to broadband internet in underserved areas by streamlining the process for applying for broadband assistance. The ACCESS BROADBAND (Advancing Critical Connectivity Expands Service, Small Businesses Resources, Opportunities, Access, and Data Based on Assessed Need and Demand) Act passed the House last year.
- The bill would create an Office of Internet Connectivity and Growth at the National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA), which would be tasked with helping businesses and local governments get federal broadband assistance. The office would also coordinate training and business workshops.
- The House bill was introduced by Reps. Paul Tonko, D-NY, and Susan Brooks, R-IN. The Senate version was sponsored by Sens. Catherine Cortez Masto, D-NV; Cory Gardner, R-CO; Doug Jones, D-AL; Ron Johnson, R-WI; Tammy Baldwin, D-WI; and Marsha Blackburn, R-TN.
The Federal Communication Commission’s (FCC) annual Broadband Deployment Report found that, although the digital divide had narrowed “substantially,” 19.4 million Americans still lacked access to the FCC's benchmark fixed broadband connection speed of 25 Mbps/3 Mbps. It’s a problem affecting major cities and rural areas alike; a U.S. Census Bureau analysis of American Community Survey data showed that rural counties had the lowest rate of broadband subscriptions, with especially low response rates in part of the upper Plains, the Southwest and the South.
Closing the digital divide has been a priority for both Congress and the administration. The White House in February released its multi-agency American Broadband Initiative (ABI) strategy to expand internet access, including $600 million in spending by the US Department of Agriculture (USDA) and making NTIA a “single location for information on Federal permitting of broadband infrastructure.” The administration has largely focused on streamlining rules to make it easier for private companies to install broadband infrastructure.
The ACCESS BROADBAND bill would increase NTIA’s responsibility in giving companies and local governments guidance on federal broadband assistance. Although the bill did not pass the Senate last year, it could have a chance given the focus on broadband access (broadband could also be part of a potential infrastructure bill).
Improved federal guidance on broadband is especially important as wireless companies start rolling out mobile 5G. In a statement, Cortez Masto said the bill would also "lay the groundwork for 5G networks that serve the needs of first responders, businesses and local school districts that need fast, reliable internet."