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WASHINGTON — U.S. Sen. John Thune (R-S.D.), ranking member of the Subcommittee on Communications, Media, and Broadband, today helped lead a subcommittee hearing entitled, “Ensuring Solutions to Meet America’s Broadband Needs.” During the hearing, Thune discussed his nationwide broadband oversight effort that will hold agencies accountable and ensure that previously authorized broadband funding is being used in the most efficient way possible to protect taxpayer dollars. Thune also highlighted his bipartisan Rural Internet Improvement Act, legislation that would streamline and bolster U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) Rural Development broadband programs and ensure that their funding is being targeted to rural areas that need it the most.
As part of Thune’s broadband oversight effort, today he sent letters to the Department of Defense (DOD), Department of the Interior (DOI), Department of Transportation (DOT), and USDA regarding each of the agencies’ implementation of Thune’s MOBILE NOW Act that was signed into law in 2018, which, among other things, helped cut through the bureaucratic red tape associated with building broadband networks.
Full letter to DOD here.
Full letter to DOI here.
Full letter to DOT here.
Full letter to USDA here.
Thune recently sent a letter to U.S. Department of Commerce Inspector General Peggy Gustafson for her failure to fulfill congressionally mandated oversight of previously authorized broadband funding. Thune also sent a letter to a diverse group of stakeholders, including broadband associations, public interest groups, and free-market think tanks to seek their input on the current broadband regulatory structure.
Thune’s opening remarks (as prepared for delivery):
“Thank you, Chairman Lujan for holding today’s hearing.
“I’d like to begin by saying it’s a been a pleasure to lead this subcommittee with you these past couple of years, and I look forward to continue working with you on a number of important issues before this subcommittee next Congress.
“One of those issues is ensuring Americans have access to reliable broadband services.
“The expansion of these services to more rural areas has long been a priority of mine here in the Senate.
“And since March of 2020, Congress has allocated billions of dollars for broadband-related services through COVID-19 pandemic relief packages, and most recently through passage of the infrastructure bill which provided broadband funding at a price tag of over $64 billion.
“The nearly $80 billion for broadband specific projects, on top of the billions of dollars the FCC disburses annually under its Universal Service Fund, is an unprecedented amount of money.
“The good news is that for those areas where certain connectivity challenges remain unresolved, this funding, in addition to the sustained investments made by telecommunications providers across the country, should help close the digital divide.
“The bad news is that this funding is spread out over 15 separate agencies and 133 programs with the lion’s share of the funding going through NTIA.
“This is deeply concerning.
“As I argued when Congress was debating the infrastructure bill, NTIA has previously fumbled attempts to bring broadband access to more communities.
“Back in 2009, the stimulus bill allocated $4.7 billion to NTIA to expand broadband access in rural and unserved areas.
“It didn’t go very well.
“The agency struggled with implementation and there were serious issues with a number of the projects the agency approved.
“Other projects resulted in a significant amount of overbuilding – meaning that they resulted in the construction of additional broadband infrastructure in areas that already had access to reliable broadband at the taxpayer’s expense.
“More recently, last year NTIA called for volunteers to help determine how to allocate the $1.5 billion Congress provided NTIA for certain broadband programs.
“That is unacceptable.
“And I’m afraid without stringent oversight, NTIA will make, and has already made, the same mistakes when managing the $42.5 billion Broadband, Equity, Access, and Deployment program and Tribal Broadband Connectivity program.
“That is why last week, I began an oversight effort to review the numerous federal broadband programs.
“Oversight of how these dollars are being spent is necessary to avoid agencies misusing billions of taxpayer dollars and more importantly, to ensure the funding is actually going to areas that are truly unserved.
“If there are changes that need to be made to the various programs Congress has established, we need to get to work to make sure they are as effective as possible and work as Congress intended.
“One such program we’ve begun work to make necessary improvements to is USDA’s ReConnect Program.
“I was pleased to partner with Chair Lujan and Senators Klobuchar and Fischer in introducing the Rural Internet Improvement Act—legislation that will streamline USDA’s broadband authorities and target funding to areas most in need.
“We must also recognize the federal government will not solve the digital divide on its own.
“It’s important we maintain a regulatory framework that promotes investment and allows telecommunications companies to make the kind of choices that have resulted in strong networks.
“Unlike other countries, broadband providers in the United States were able to keep Americans connected when demands for fixed and mobile networks soared during the pandemic.
“This is largely because of the United States’ light-tough regulatory approach to broadband policy, which has incentivized the private sector to make network reliability, affordability, and resiliency a priority.
“Finally, we must tackle permitting hurdles that delay the buildout of broadband infrastructure.
“My MOBILE NOW Act, which was signed into law in 2018, has been an effective tool in moving the federal government in the right direction, but I continue to hear concerns about unnecessary delays and costs associated with broadband permitting.
“The agencies processing permitting requests need to be held accountable if they are not meeting deadlines.
“Which is why today I’m sending requests to several federal agencies on the steps they have taken to implement MOBILE NOW’s broadband siting mandates.
“For too long we’ve talked about bridging the digital divide.
“It’s time to actually do it.
“And the only way that happens is if this Committee actually utilizes its important oversight responsibilities to ensure the agencies under its jurisdiction make smart, targeted investments that use taxpayer dollars responsibly.
“Anything short of that will result in government waste leaving Americans still unconnected.
“I want to thank each of the witnesses for being here today, and I look forward to the discussion.
“Thank you, Mr. Chairman.”