Congress Introduces Rural Broadband Acceleration Act to Speed Deployment During Pandemic

In an attempt to hasten broadband expansion in response to the ongoing Covid-19 pandemic, politicians in both the U.S. Senate and House of Representatives have now introduced the Rural Broadband Acceleration Act. The bipartisan legislation — introduced in the House in late May and in the Senate just last week — would direct the federal government to speed up the disbursement of $20.4 billion in funding for rural broadband access, in order to connect communities that have been further isolated by the public health crisis.

We wrote previously about a push from electric cooperatives, led by consultant Conexon, calling for expedited rural broadband funds. Having quicker access to the planned subsidies, they argued, would allow the co-ops to connect the unserved rural Americans who are desperately in need of better connectivity to work remotely, attend online school, and participate in telehealth appointments during the pandemic.

Beyond electric cooperatives, the current legislation also has support from advocates and businesses that promote high-quality, often fiber-based broadband networks, but some have raised concerns that the funding process would be reliant on inaccurate federal broadband data.

A Bill in Two Acts

In the U.S. House, Majority Whip James Clyburn of South Carolina and Representative Fred Upton of Michigan introduced the Rural Broadband Acceleration Act, HR 7022, back in May. The two legislators have since been joined by a bipartisan group of more than 30 cosponsors.

Last week, a similarly bipartisan set of senators introduced a version of the legislation, SR 4201, in their chamber as well. The cosponsors in the Senate are Senators Rob Portman and Sherrod Brown of Ohio, Mike Braun of Indiana, Michael Bennet of Colorado, and Doug Jones of Alabama.

The proposed bills direct the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) to more quickly hand out monies from the upcoming Rural Digital Opportunity Fund (RDOF) program, which will use a reverse auction bidding process to disburse up to $20.4 billion to providers to deploy broadband in unserved rural areas. This would be accomplished by condensing the application process, setting earlier buildout requirements, and automatically awarding funds to applicants that are the sole bidder in an area that commits to offering symmetrical gigabit service. These measures would likely result in a notable proportion of funds going to rural cooperatives, local governments, and other community-based broadband providers to quickly build high-quality fiber networks.

The final bill texts for both chambers aren’t available yet on the official Congress website, but it appears that the Senate version of the Rural Broadband Acceleration Act would also allow Internet access providers that haven’t been designated as Eligible Telecommunications Carriers to receive federal broadband subsidies from programs like RDOF, potentially opening participation to large cable monopolies as well as more non-traditional telecommunications providers. This language was not in a discussion draft [pdf] of the original House bill.

Embraced by Cooperatives, Others

In addition to Conexon and the rural electric cooperatives that voiced early support for the policies in the Rural Broadband Acceleration Act, groups like the National Association of Realtors, the Internet and Television Association (NCTA), the Fiber Broadband Association, and the National Rural Health Association have endorsed the new legislation.

Some have noted concerns with accelerating RDOF, notably pointing out that the areas eligible for funding are based on inaccurate federal data that overstate broadband coverage and availability. The FCC is in the process of updating its data collection method to achieve more granular results, though it is not expected to be ready in time for the program’s planned start date in October. The draft of the House bill [pdf] appears to call on the FCC to improve its broadband maps before then, but even without updated data, there are still plenty of rural Americans desperately in need of better connectivity who stand to benefit from the acceleration of brodband deployment

For more on RDOF, listen to episode 402 of the Community Broadband Bits podcast for an interview with Jonathan Chambers of Conexon.