The Senate Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation advanced a number of bipartisan bills out of committee in an executive session today including four with tech implications. Those bills are a telecommunications workforce bill, one on tech research, one that would map broadband connectivity and maternal health outcomes, and another to protect victims of domestic violence.

The committee also advanced the nominations of Senator Bill Nelson to lead NASA and Don Graves to be the deputy secretary of Commerce. Both will now need to be confirmed by the full Senate.

It was a session without much excitement, as all four bills and both nominations were reported favorably by a voice vote.

Telecommunications Workforce and Tech Research

Among the bills advanced out of committee were Sen. John Thune’s, R-S.D., “Telecommunications Skilled Workforce Act” and Sen. Roger Wicker’s, R-Miss., “Advanced Technological Manufacturing Act.” The first focuses on skilling up and scaling the telecommunications workforce to meet 5G development needs, and the latter would modernize STEM education and expand the institutions eligible for a National Science Foundation grant.

Thune’s bill is co-sponsored by Sens. John Tester, D-Mont., Gary Peters, D-Mi., Jerry Moran, R-Kan., and Wicker. The bill would require the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) to establish a working group to address telecommunications workforce needs and establish and issue guidance on how states can meet the needs of their telecommunications workforce.

The bill would also require the Government Accountability Office (GAO) to report to Congress on the number of workers needed for building and maintenance of broadband infrastructure in rural areas and 5G infrastructure.

“In order to reap the benefits of 5G, we must have a skilled workforce in place to deploy the infrastructure necessary to support the technology. Some estimates suggest that we will need an additional 20,000 tower climbers alone for the installation of wireless infrastructure. This legislation will help increase the number of workers enrolled in 5G training programs and identify ways to grow the telecommunications workforce,” Thune said at the executive session.

Wicker’s bill – co-sponsored by committee chair Sen. Maria Cantwell, D-Wash., and Sen. Jacky Rosen, D-Nev. – is focused on harnessing the nation’s research potential.

In addition to modernizing references in the Scientific and Advanced Technology Act of 1992 to include “science, technology, engineering, and math,” the bill would instruct the Director of the National Science Foundation (NSF) to conduct multiple pilot programs.

Those pilot programs would focus on the expansion of eligible higher education institutions eligible for NSF grants and include mentorship programs, grant writing assistance, targeted outreach, and program support for institutions without an experienced grant writing office.

Maternity Data Mapping and Domestic Violence

The committee also advanced two bills with tech implications aimed at protecting women in Rosen’s Data Mapping to Save Moms’ Lives Act and Sen. Brian Schatz’s Safe Connections Act of 2021 aimed at protecting victims of domestic violence.

Rosen’s bill has 11 cosponsors, with Sens. Schatz, Peters, Deb Fischer, R-Neb., Todd Young, R-Ind., Ed Markey, D-Mass., Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., Angus King, I-Maine, Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn., Chris Van Hollen, D-Md., Mike Braun, R-Ind., and Kyrsten Sinema, D-Ariz. all signing on.

The bill directs the FCC to include maternal outcomes “for not less than one year postpartum” into the most recently available FCC broadband map and consult with the Centers for Disease Control on how these outcomes should be incorporated. The bill would also put GAO on the hook for a study on how effective internet connectivity is in reducing maternal morbidity rates.

“Improving maternal health outcomes for women in Nevada and across the country is critically important. Our country has seen a dramatic increase in maternal mortality over the last few decades, and rural areas especially, lack of access to medical services can lead to severe complications and worse outcomes for pregnant women,” Sen. Rosen said.

“My bipartisan legislation … helps address this problem by directing the FCC to map out areas with the need for both increased maternal care and access to the internet, the FCC has already done similar work for other health conditions such as diabetes, the pandemic has taught us the importance of closing the digital divide. And with this broadband mapping information, we can better target where telemedicine and broadband technology infrastructure improvements can be most effective to improve health outcomes for moms and to save lives.”

Schatz’s bill focuses on reducing the barriers victims of domestic violence have to overcome in order to separate themselves from a family phone plan with their abuser. The bill would require plan providers to give domestic violence survivors and anyone under their care a separate line within 48 hours of a line separation request and separate the abuser’s line from the shared contract.

The bill is co-sponsored by Sens. Fischer, Blumenthal, Rosen, Rick Scott, R-Fla., and Shelley Moore Capito, R-W.Va.

“This is a really serious situation where people can’t find their own personal economic, or even social freedom because they’re stuck in a cell phone plan with their abuser. This is not a small thing, but this is an absolutely fixable thing,” Schatz said.

The bill makes sure to note a conviction is not required for it to fall within this bill’s coverage, and, in instances where the survivor is not the primary account holder, requires the service provider to give the survivor advance notice of when it plans to alert the primary account holder.

“This is important legislation to help domestic violence survivors to get back their independence. In today’s world, our mobile telephone numbers increasingly are tied to our identity from accessing our emails to securing our bank accounts, it is crucial that we address the ways in which abusers can control the victim via group wireless plans or track their calls for help,” Fischer said.

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Lamar Johnson
Lamar Johnson
Lamar Johnson is a MeriTalk Staff Reporter covering the intersection of government and technology.
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