U.S. Sen. John Thune (R-S.D.), chairman of the Commerce Committee’s Subcommittee on Communications, Technology, Innovation, and the Internet, today convened the subcommittee’s first hearing of the year titled, “The Impact of Broadband Investments in Rural America.” The subcommittee discussed opportunities and investments to support carriers in rural America, efforts to prevent overbuilding among federal broadband programs, and the next steps to close the digital divide.
The paneled featured testimony from representatives of two South Dakota telecommunication companies, Justin Forde from Midcontinent Communications and Denny Law from Golden West Telecommunications.
Thune’s opening statement (as prepared for delivery):
“Good afternoon and welcome to today’s hearing examining the state of rural broadband deployment.
“Given the importance of rural broadband to the committee last Congress and also to my home state of South Dakota, I am excited to chair the first communications subcommittee hearing of the year on this topic.
“High-speed broadband services are vital to America’s communities.
“Broadband connectivity provides opportunities for advancements in health care, education, and economic development.
“Unfortunately, access to these services is often determined by where you live, with rural areas trailing more populated areas in broadband access.
“One of the most critical programs to help build out rural broadband services is the High Cost program within the Federal Communications Commission’s Universal Service Fund.
“Just a little over five months ago, I led a hearing calling on the FCC to restore sufficiency and predictability to the High Cost program.
“Since that time, the FCC, under the leadership of Chairman Pai, unanimously took action to enable the continued deployment of broadband in rural communities in my home state of South Dakota and across the country.
“The commission fulfilled an important obligation to ensure universal service and met its obligations under the law.
“By ensuring predictable and sufficient support, there will be more broadband investments in rural and tribal communities across America.
“For that, I thank the Commission.
“It is important to note that universal service cannot be achieved without pragmatic and bipartisan cooperation in Congress and without proper oversight of the FCC and other agencies tasked with advancing this goal, including the Rural Utilities Service at the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
“Last year’s spending bill directed the Rural Utilities Service to develop a pilot program to distribute $600 million to advance broadband deployment in underserved areas of rural America.
“That same program received an additional $550 million this year.
“While both the FCC and the Rural Utilities Service share the goal of closing the digital divide, we have to be mindful of where these dollars are being directed.
“I have repeatedly said that coordination between these particular programs is essential if we are truly going to reach areas lacking sufficient access to broadband.
“Failure to do so will lead to the duplication of existing broadband services.
“As this Committee has previously discussed, accurate broadband maps are also essential for these programs to effectively target unserved areas.
“I am encouraged to see that the FCC’s latest broadband deployment report shows that the number of Americans lacking access to a fixed broadband connection has dropped by more than 25 percent, but it is clear more work has to be done to close the digital divide once and for all.
“One effort to do that is an auction for the Remote Areas Fund, which would provide service to extremely high-cost areas, including both rate-of-return and price cap areas.
“So, I’m glad Chairman Pai has indicated an auction for the Remote Areas Fund may take place this year.
“I am interested in seeing a tech-neutral approach for future support from programs like the Remote Areas Fund, ensuring wireline service along with fixed and mobile wireless service have a part to play in connecting Americans broadband service.
“As I said earlier, I am pleased to be convening this important hearing.
“I remain committed to building on the past successes of this Committee while also looking for new approaches to ensure all Americans have access to next-generation broadband services.
“To help in that effort, we have a very distinguished panel before us.
“Today, we are joined by representatives from two South Dakota based companies, Mr. Denny Law, General Manager and CEO of Golden West Telecommunications, and Mr. Justin Forde, Senior Director of Government Relations, Midcontinent Communications.
“We are also joined by Dr. Mark Jamison, Visiting Scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, and Ms. Carol Mattey, Founder and Principal of Mattey Consulting.
“Thank you all for being here today.
“I look forward to hearing from you and having the opportunity to discuss how we can continue to close the digital divide.
“Before I recognize Ranking Member Schatz for his remarks, I’d just like to add that I’m looking forward to leading this subcommittee with him.
“I mentioned the importance of pragmatic, bipartisan cooperation when confronting issues like rural broadband. Senator Schatz and I have partnered on many bills over the last several years, from efforts to streamline small cell siting and improve weather forecasting to bills focused on small business cybersecurity and reforming emergency alerts.
“So, I am optimistic about our continued collaboration on matters within the subcommittee’s purview.”