A partisan divide in the policy debate over how to encourage broadband investment in underserved areas of the U.S. highlighted just one challenge in a broader political disagreement over infrastructure spending on May 22.
At a hearing of the U.S. House Energy and Commerce Committee, the group's top Republican raised concerns that a bill that includes $40 billion for broadband infrastructure could increase spending without achieving its ultimate goal of connecting underserved areas.
In addition to the $40 billion in broadband deployment funds, the bill, known as the Leading Infrastructure for Tomorrow's America, or LIFT, Act, would include $5 billion for financing broadband projects and $12 billion for improving the 9-1-1 service infrastructure. The majority of the funds would be awarded by the U.S. Federal Communications Commission. The bill has the support of the committee's 31 Democratic members.
At the May 22 hearing, the committee's ranking Republican, Rep. Greg Walden, R-Ore., expressed concerns that the bill would direct funds based on faulty maps regarding broadband coverage. "The LIFT America Act designates new investments in some proven programs, but neglects to address some of these concerns [about inadequate coverage maps]," Walden said.
Mignon Clyburn, who served as a Democratic FCC commissioner from 2009 until 2018, said in prepared testimony that while she is largely supportive of the bill, she agrees that the FCC's current broadband coverage maps should be scrapped.
The FCC uses the coverage maps to target where best to direct federal subsidies to help connect unserved areas. The agency often comes under criticism for the way it collects data from facilities-based broadband providers, however.
All facilities-based broadband providers are required to file coverage information twice a year with the agency, listing all census blocks where they offer internet access service at speeds that exceed 200 kbps. Critics of the current approach note that the FCC's format for submitting information requires providers to report census blocks as "served" even if just one household in a given block meets the criteria.
"I recommend that we throw those coverage maps out," Clyburn said. "They should never again be used for any proceedings, including for funding purposes."
Instead, Clyburn said providers should be required to show more granular subscription-based information on network coverage. She also said the FCC's coverage data should be compared to third-party sources.
The FCC has an open proceeding aimed at modernizing broadband coverage data. Its commissioners have openly acknowledged the mapping process has deficiencies.
Walden also said he thinks the government should be incentivizing private sector network build-outs. He pointed to recent commitments from T-Mobile US Inc., which has pledged to deploy a 5G network that covers 99% of the population within six years if regulators allow its pending merger with Sprint Corp. to close. Clyburn has worked with T-Mobile as an adviser amid its merger preparations.
Clyburn said the LIFT bill could play a key role in expanding broadband coverage by providing a "targeted infusion" for unserved communities.
Despite the objections raised by Walden, Rep. Frank Pallone, D-N.J., chairman of the committee, said he hopes the LIFT bill can ultimately become bipartisan. He characterized the May 22 hearing as merely the beginning of the process of hammering out the right policy. Pallone previously introduced a bill under the same name that also included $40 billion for broadband deployment. That bill, which only had Democratic co-sponsors, did not advance in the previous Congress.
The May 22 hearing occurred on the same day that President Trump and Congressional Democratic leaders indicated they were at an impasse on broader infrastructure policy. Trump met with congressional Democratic leaders to discuss funding for a $2 trillion infrastructure plan but said moving forward with an infrastructure package would be impossible if investigations into his administration continue.