U.S. Sen. John Thune (R-S.D.) today led a bipartisan group of senators in introducing legislation known as the Rural Connectivity Advancement Program Act of 2021. The bill sets aside 10 percent of the net proceeds from spectrum auctions to be deposited into an FCC-administered Rural Broadband Assessment and Deployment Fund, to be used for building broadband networks.
Sen. Maggie Hassan (D-N.H.), Jerry Moran (R-Kan.) and Catherine Cortez Masto (D-Nev.) joined Thune in introducing the legislation.
Under terms of the Act, the FCC must use the fund to establish one or more programs to address gaps in broadband internet access service coverage in high-cost rural areas. The federal agency also would be required to address insufficient funding of other programs that could adversely affect the sustainability of broadband services or comparability of rates supported by such programs. Further, the FCC must establish transparency and accountability requirements for addressing such coverage gaps and funding shortfalls, and it must report annually on the distribution of amounts from the fund.
NATE: The Communications Infrastructure Contractors Association, has its headquarters which is based in Thune’s home state. NATE’s president and CEO, Todd Schlekeway, said that NATE thanks the senators for their leadership in introducing the Rural Connectivity Advancement Program Act in the 117th Congress.
“NATE member companies are on the front lines of deployment, working on a daily basis to close the digital divide,” Schlekeway said. “The Association is proud to endorse this legislation that will ultimately provide an infusion of funds from proceeds generated from congressionally mandated spectrum auctions to promote broadband deployment services and communications infrastructure expansion.”
Christina Mason, vice president of government affairs for the Wireless Internet Service Providers Association (WISPA), said that the legislation puts forward a solid, common-sense and flexible solution toward eradicating the rural divide.
“We are encouraged by the bill’s focus on connecting rural communities to infrastructure capable of delivering reliable high-speed broadband, which COVID has shown to be more important than ever before,” Mason said. “Internet access helped America weather the storm, and WISPA’s 700-plus internet service provider members have proudly worked overtime to keep millions of Americans in the most remote areas of this nation connected during very difficult times. We believe no one should be left to compete in a 21st-century economy without access to broadband.”
Shirley Bloomfield, CEO of NTCA–The Rural Broadband Association, said that existing programs like the FCC’s Universal Service Fund (USF) play a critical role in helping providers deploy and sustain high-speed broadband in rural areas. It follows, she said, that NTCA endorses the Rural Connectivity Advancement Program Act because it is intended to to enable new initiatives and make use of existing programs to support the buildout and operation of broadband networks.
“If the last 15 months have shown us anything, it is that broadband connectivity is essential for daily life,” Bloomfield said. “When the COVID-19 pandemic forced so much of our lives to move online, NTCA’s community-based providers went above and beyond to keep rural Americans connected. But we have more work to do, and the Rural Connectivity Advancement Program Act would provide significant resources and powerful tools to help with the dual objectives of deploying advanced networks and sustaining high-quality affordable services across rural America.”
Don Bishop is executive editor and associate publisher of AGL Magazine.
Legislation aimed at controlling the costs and reducing the time for small cell deployment introduced in the Senate is compatible with the Third Report and Order scheduled to be voted on at the FCC next week, according congressional staff members who spoke during the Legislative Policy Initiatives: Congressional Agenda panel at the Mobile World Congress Americas last week in Los Angeles.
STREAMLINE Small Cell Deployment Act was introduced late in June by Sen. John Thune (R-S.D.) and Sen. Brian Schatz (D-HI).
“The FCC is doing great work that is complementary to what we are doing,” said Crystal Tully, policy director and counsel for Sen. Thune. “We are supportive of what the FCC is doing at the same time as we are. We talk with them about what they are doing and stakeholders that we have both met with.”
Eric Einhorn, senior counsel technology and communications policy for Sen. Schatz, said there is a lot of overlap between the FCC’s Third Report and Order ad and the Streamline Small Cell Deployment Act. “There is a lot of interplay between the two and it will be interesting to see how it all plays out,” he said.
One big difference between the Act and the Third Report and Order that lawyers and judges will notice is the FCC interpreted Section 253 of the Communications Act while the bill seeks to insert a new section into Section 332(c) of the Communications Act. Local governments have already signaled that they will attack the Commission’s interpretation of Section 253 in the courts.
One source told eDigest that they wondered why Congress would take up the controversial issue, and the potential political flak, when the FCC was already heading in that direction.
Tully said her senator decided to introduce the legislation after hearing about the delays carriers were experiencing in small cell deployment. Over the last year and a half, Thune has been meeting with the wireless industry and state and local government stakeholders to see how deployment can be sped up on state and local lands.
“They came to us to us to see how we could speed up the local zoning approval process. In South Dakota, you only have six months to site small cells because of the cold weather and frozen ground, so we needed to figure out how speed up the process.” Tully said.
Having shot clocks in place to spur the siting process would not only help South Dakotans beat the winter freeze, but also assist U.S. companies to catch up with other nations in the race to 5G, Tully added.
Einhorn said the capital-intensive nature of the wireless business needs “certainty and a good set of rules” to meet the timeline that is needed to deploy the hundreds of thousands of small cells needed for 5G.
“The structure under Section 332 of the Communications Act was written for tall towers and it was a mismatch for small cells,” Einhorn said. “What we did was carve out a spot for small cells defined by size and by a set of different parameters.”
Tully met with the National Association of Towns and Townships and found out about smaller town’s and township’s lack of resources to handle the small cell applications. So, the shot clock is longer for towns with under 50,000 people.
It’s early days for the STREAMLINE Small Cell Deployment Act. It has yet to have a hearing or companion legislation introduced in the House. It’s hard to envision how the FCC’s interpretation of current communications law will mesh with Congress’ potential rewrite of that law. There is the possibility that if the Third Report and Order is adopted but doesn’t pass the inevitable court challenge, the Act could fill the gap and push the small cell streamlining initiative forward.