House Looks at Broadband Mapping, Definitions

Legislators agree more work is needed on closing digital divide

It is broadband deployment week on Capitol Hill.

Following a Senate hearing Tuesday (June 20) on the Universal Service Fund broadband deployment subsidies -- a hearing that focused on accurate FCC broadband coverage data, or the lack of it -- the House Communications Subcommittee drilled down on coverage mapping and definitions in a hearing June 21.

Committee chair Marsha Blackburn (R-Tenn.) also made some news, saying the subcommittee was looking to hold an FCC oversight hearing next month.

Before launching into the meat of the meeting, Blackburn took a moment to send best wishes to committee member Rep. Steve Scalise (R-La.), recovering in the hospital from his wounds in last week's shooting, as well as the rest of those injured in the attack.

The hearing focused on updating the National Broadband Map, which has not happened since June 2014, "if you can believe that," she added, as well as what the definition of access to broadband should be, high-speed or basic, unserved or underserved.

Blackburn said the digital divide continues to plague rural America, echoing the consensus at the Senate hearing a day before, but also said the government needs to be a good steward of the taxpayers' money by having accurate data so that areas with the greatest need are targeted "by both public and private investment."

The hearing was divided into discussions about defining high-speed broadband and accurately mapping where it is.

Related: House Digs Into Broadband Infrastructure

The FCC in 2015 defined high-speed 25-Mbps downstream, she noted, calling that a "dramatic shift" from the previous 4-Mbps standard. The Wheeler FCC at the time called 25-Mbps an aspirational definition for what would soon be table stakes for delivering the amount of data, particularly video, consumers wanted.

But raising that definition also reduced the number of folks defined as getting high-speed broadband, Blackburn said, but added that a variety of speeds serve a variety of purposes and, while consumer demand for higher speeds is increasing, "we should examine whether a 'totality of circumstances' test might be more appropriate for defining broadband connectivity."

Blackburn said accurate definitions and mapping data are imperative so that "hardworking taxpayer money" goes to areas that most need it.

On the other side, ranking member Rep. Mike Doyle (D-Pa.) said he and Blackburn agreed broadband is critical for the nation and the economy, and the country is still struggling to connect unserved and underserved members of the community.

He said that while Universal Service Funding was making a dent, more needed to be done.

Doyle and other Democrats have offered up a bill to invest $40 billion more in broadband infrastructure. Blackburn had argued that the billions already spent in the Obama Administration via the BTOP and RUS programs had mostly been money spent with little return.

Doyle said $40 billion could "significantly close" the broadband deployment gap and deliver high-speed service to 98% of the country.

ISPs have warned that whatever government money is put into deployment, it should not be spent on overbuilding existing plant.

Doyle also urged the chairman to hold an oversight hearing on the new FCC. A planned March 8 hearing was postponed, but has yet to be rescheduled, he said.

He cited the almost 5 million network-neutrality comments the FCC has received to suggest it was time for the commissioners to come before the committee to "address the public's concerns."

Pai spoke briefly about the issue at a Senate Appropriations Committee budget hearing this week, where the issue of closing the rural digital divide was also a topic of conversation. Doyle said he hoped an oversight hearing could be arranged ASAP. Blackburn said they had been working with the commissioners’ offices and were looking to schedule the hearing sometime in July.

Rep. Doris Matsui (D-Calif.) said that while she appreciated the informational hearing, she would rather it have been a legislative hearing on various bills that have been offered up related to broadband deployment and measurement.