As schools have closed down across the country to combat the spread of COVID-19, students are increasingly needing broadband access to take part in digital learning. However, there are still wide swaths of the country – much of it rural – that lack access to broadband.
In light of this, Reps. Bill Johnson, R-Ohio., and Rob Wittman, R-Va., introduced the Serving Rural America Act on March 6. The legislation would create a five-year pilot grant program at the Federal Communications Commission (FCC). The Commission would be given $100 million a year – for a total of $500 million – to expand broadband service to underserved areas of the country. In a statement, Wittman said the legislation would help bring broadband access to the roughly 19 million Americans who lack high-speed internet.
If enacted the legislation would “require community partnerships between providers and local governments and stakeholders, institute transparency throughout the process, and provide testing to determine if providers are meeting the necessary requirements,” Johnson said.
Wittman said that in addition to encouraging partnerships, the legislation also prevents overbuilding by limited Federal broadband support to one provider in a rural area. He also said that the bill is “technology neutral” and will “ensure new infrastructure is viable for generations.”
Johnson further underscored the urgency of closing the digital divide and expand broadband access, “If solutions like this aren’t enacted soon, there won’t be a rural broadband problem left to solve, because people will leave rural America and move to places where they and their children have access to the ever-expanding digital world.”
The grants will prioritize funding to areas without 25Mbps/3Mbps speeds. It also creates a challenge process that allows either the public or existing service providers in a proposed area to submit a challenge to the FCC to determine whether the project would duplication existing broadband service.
One reoccurring theme in the push to expand broadband access is the lack of reliable mapping data. The legislation includes measures to improve broadband mapping, including analysis of third party data, crowdsourcing, and site-specific testing in service areas where mapping data has been contested.
To be eligible, an internet service provider is required to partner with a locality, city, county, wireless authority, or planning district commission to ensure the needs and input of residents are included.
The bill also requires the FCC to submit an annual progress report to Congress based on buildout data provided by grant recipients.
The legislation does not appear to have a companion bill in the Senate.