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Congress takes piecemeal approach to expanding broadband Internet access

Efforts to expand access to broadband have quietly been proceeding on Capitol Hill as the Trump administration prepares to move on to infrastructure after Congress passes legislation overhauling the tax code.

Over the past few months, the Senate has passed two major bills aimed at expanding access to broadband, and experts are hopeful that at least one of those bills, the MOBILE NOW Act from Sen. John Thune, R-S.D., will be on President Trump’s desk by the end of the year.

“Congress is acting,” said Jonathon Hauenschild, who leads the Communications and Technology Task Force at the American Legislative Exchange Council. “It’s probably a little slower than we’d like to see, but it’s Congress being Congress.”

Thune’s MOBILE NOW Act, short for Making Opportunities for Broadband Investment and Limiting Excessive and Needless Obstacles to Wireless, passed the Senate by unanimous consent in August and has since been received in the House.

The bill includes a number of measures that largely enjoy bipartisan support and aim to spur broadband deployment.

The MOBILE NOW Act, for example, “facilitates adoption of ‘dig-once’ policies by states,” which require broadband conduit to be laid at the same time highway construction or other below-ground infrastructure takes place. The bill also establishes a shot clock for federal agencies to approve applications and permit requests for placing wireless infrastructure on federal property.

Hauenschild said he believes the MOBILE NOW Act has a good chance of passing the House, despite Congress’ lengthy to-do list, and said it would make the most impact of the bills already under consideration.

“The MOBILE NOW Act is the more critical to see passed to encourage broadband deployment,” he said. “I’m cautiously optimistic with the MOBILE NOW Act’s chance for passing by the end of the year.”

The Trump administration said it would include broadband in the president’s $1 trillion infrastructure package, but so far, the details of the proposal haven’t materialized.

A White House official told the Washington Examiner infrastructure is the next legislative priority, following tax reform. Additionally, the official said the administration has been working with Congress on Trump’s infrastructure priorities, which include rural broadband.

Hauenschild said the White House has indicated it’s excited about working with Congress, the states and stakeholders to spur development, particularly since the telecom industry is projected to invest $275 billion over the next seven years to deploy “5G,” according to an analysis from Accenture Strategy.

“They see the opportunity and are excited to take that opportunity and work with stakeholders to ensure everyone has access to broadband,” he said of the Trump administration.

But while the White House waits for a tax reform bill, Congress has been taking a piecemeal approach to expanding access to broadband, unveiling legislation addressing different aspect of the issue.

Rep. Ben Ray Lujan, D-N.M., rolled out a proposal Tuesday to encourage broadband deployment in rural areas such as New Mexico.

Under Lujan’s proposal, public-private partnerships that help deploy broadband would be able to receive low-interest financing.

“Today’s high-speed Internet access isn’t just an embellishment; it’s necessary for educational success, civic engagement, economic growth, smart healthcare, and staying connected to family and friends,” Lujan said. “But that simply isn’t the case in many parts of our state and in many other parts of the country. If air-travelers can have Internet access at 30,000 feet in a plane, those of us on the ground should be able to have Internet access in rural New Mexico. We should bridge the digital divide and end — once and for all — the reality of digital haves and have-nots.”

Additionally, Sens. Roger Wicker, R-Miss., and Catherine Cortez Masto, D-Nev., introduced the Streamlining Permitting to Enable Efficient Deployment of Broadband Infrastructure Act of 2017.

The proposal would streamline the federal permitting process for telecommunications equipment to accelerate broadband deployment.

Wicker and Cortez Masto’s proposal not only is backed by lawmakers on both sides of the aisle, but from trade associations as well.

“Connectivity is one of the driving trends of our time, and this is a key step in enabling the anytime/anywhere access to information, friends and families that consumers want,” said Gary Shapiro, president of the Consumer Technology Association.

“By removing duplicative, needless steps to build broadband infrastructures, communities will have quicker access to the technology that is improving lives and empowering businesses.”

Frederick Hill, spokesman for the Senate Commerce Committee, told the Washington Examiner the committee “looks forward to discussing this proposal” during its discussion on infrastructure.

According to Politico, though, the committee could soon be marking up a draft bill from Thune and Sen. Brian Schatz, D-Hawaii, that aims to speed up the deployment of “5G.”

The proposal, a draft of which was circulating, would limit the ability of state and local governments to restrict access to poles and rights of way, and tighten shot clocks.

Thune told reporters he wants to mark up the bill this year, according to Politico.

Though there’s likely to be a more coordinated push on expanding access to broadband once Congress passes tax reform and moves on to infrastructure, Hauenschild said he’s been encouraged by the action lawmakers have taken so far, and believes Republicans and Democrats in both chambers “understand the gravity of the situation, both looking forward to the future, and right now.

“It’s the inability for rural areas to participate in the online economy,” Hauenschild said of the consequences of inaction from Congress. “You see tools for farmers, and they can start to implement technology to make their farms more efficient, whether it’s growing crops, using the Internet of Things to automate a lot of things. It’s the ability of the small communities to buy from Amazon, to sell whatever it is they want to sell on Etsy. Maybe they live in an area where Uber or Lyft would help a lot of people.

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