U.S. Sen. John Thune (R-S.D.), ranking member of the Subcommittee on Communications, Media, and Broadband, today addressed the importance of prioritizing funding for broadband services to unserved rural communities like those in South Dakota. Thune discussed his concerns with the broadband-related provisions in the infrastructure package, and he highlighted the importance of his proposed amendment that would redirect funds from the National Telecommunications and Information Administration to the bipartisanRural Connectivity Advancement Program Act.
Thune’s remarks below (as prepared for delivery):
“Mr. President, as a senator from a rural state – and a member and former chairman of the Senate Commerce Committee – expanding broadband access to rural areas has long been a priority of mine.
“And given our economy’s increasing reliance on broadband in the digital age, it makes sense that as part of this infrastructure bill we are prioritizing expanding broadband access to unserved areas.
“But I’m concerned.
“Because a lot of the money allocated for expanding access – more than $42 billion – would be funneled not through the Federal Communications Commission, where the majority of the government’s broadband expertise resides, but through the Commerce Department’s National Telecommunications and Information Administration (or NTIA), which has previously fumbled attempts to bring broadband access to more communities.
“Back in 2009, a government stimulus bill allocated $4.7 billion to NTIA to expand broadband access in rural and under-served areas.
“It didn’t go very well.
“The agency struggled with implementation.
“There were serious issues with a number of the projects the agency approved: Fourteen projects were either temporarily or permanently halted.
“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.
“A Government Accountability Office report found that the National Telecommunications and Information Administration lacked the data it needed to determine whether areas were genuinely under-served.
“More recently, just last month, NTIA called for volunteers to evaluate grant proposals.
“NTIA has called for volunteers to help determine how to allocate the $1.5 billion Congress has provided to NTIA over the past year to improve broadband access.
“Mr. President, we should think long and hard before giving an agency the authority to administer more than $42 billion in grants when it has to call on volunteers to help allocate a tiny fraction of that money.
“NTIA simply has not demonstrated its ability to administer a grant program of this size and complexity.
“A much better alternative would be to put the Federal Communications Commission in charge of disbursing broadband funds
“In contrast to NTIA, which has just 157 employees, the Federal Communications Commission employs more than 1,400 people.
“It has the staffing resources it needs in-house to administer this grant program.
“The FCC also – crucially – has the necessary expertise to identify truly unserved areas, so that federal dollars go to communities with the most significant lack of broadband access.
“Mr. President, I have proposed an amendment to the infrastructure legislation before us that would strike the NTIA grant program and redirect that money to bipartisan legislation I have introduced – the Rural Connectivity Advancement Program Act.
“The Rural Connectivity Advancement Program would mandate that 10 percent of the net proceeds of any spectrum auctions mandated by the federal government go to building out broadband networks, with the goal of strengthening connectivity in rural and tribal areas.
“Redirecting the proposed $42 billion in grants to this program would allow the Federal Communications Commission to administer these funds – which would make it more likely that this funding would actually go to meet the broadband needs of unserved communities.
“On a related note, I’ve also introduced an amendment to strike a provision of the infrastructure bill that would allow NTIA to make changes to the formula Congress is providing to determine what areas of the country are eligible for grants.
“Why is Congress bothering to put funding guardrails in this legislation if it’s going to allow NTIA to change them at will?
“As I’ve said, NTIA lacks adequate expertise when it comes to identifying what areas of the country are truly unserved.
“I’m not sure why we’d give NTIA the authority to change Congress’ guidelines and possibly further diminish the chances that this grant program will deliver on its objective.
“Unfortunately, just yesterday the Senate voted down an amendment offered by the ranking member of the Commerce Committee that would have provided critical safeguards should NTIA establish this program.
“Mr. President, the proponents of this legislation have reportedly received assurances from the secretary of commerce about how NTIA will implement the bill.
“If this bill is enacted, the secretary should expect close scrutiny from the Commerce Committee and be prepared to explain how she will prevent a repeat of the agency’s past missteps.
“Mr. President, as I said, there have been problems in the past with government broadband dollars going to overbuilding of broadband in areas that already have a substantial amount of access.
“And I’m concerned that this bill could result in the same problem.
“In addition to the NTIA grant program, the infrastructure bill would authorize the Department of Agriculture to approve grant funding in areas where 50 percent of the homes lack adequate access to broadband services.
“While this may sound like an appropriate percentage, the truth is that a grant for building out broadband in an area where 50 percent of the homes already have adequate access is likely to result in significant overbuilding at taxpayers’ expense.
“We seem to have forgotten that federal resources are – or should be – limited.
“There are plenty of areas where broadband access is almost nonexistent and where there’s almost no available broadband infrastructure to build on.
“And those are the first places where we need to direct available government funding.
“That’s why I’m offering an amendment to change the formula to require that proposed grants cover an area where at least 80 percent of homes lack broadband access.
“This bipartisan amendment deserves a vote.
“Mr. President, I’m also concerned that we are advancing this bill without many of the provisions, particularly the broadband components, going through regular committee consideration.
“The Commerce Committee has a long history of advancing legislation to expand access to broadband services.
“Rushed legislative efforts that bypass the committees of jurisdiction – and the subject-matter expertise they offer – could lead to billions of dollars being spent with little to show.
“Mr. President, I’m appreciative of the efforts of the bipartisan negotiators who crafted this bill.
“I know they share my goal of targeting broadband resources to those most in need.
“And I’m very pleased that my Telecommunications Skilled Workforce Act amendment received a vote the other day and passed the Senate by an overwhelmingly bipartisan margin.
“This amendment would help ensure that we develop the workforce necessary to meet the demands of the next generation of mobile broadband internet, 5G.
“But I hope that we’ll also have a chance to vote on my other amendments – and amendments being offered by my colleagues.
“Infrastructure legislation is tremendously important to our economy, and we need to take the time to get this legislation right
“And that means giving senators who were not part of the working group adequate time to offer amendments and hopefully improve this product.
“We’ve made some progress on that front this week, and I hope we’ll make more before finishing this bill.
“Mr. President, I yield the floor.”