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Congressional Testimony Outlines Remaining Broadband Barriers

During a U.S. Senate subcommittee hearing titled “Ensuring Solutions to Meet America’s Broadband Needs,” witnesses testified that barriers must be addressed for federal funding to see its target impact reached.

U.S. Sen. Ben Ray Luján, chair of the Subcommittee on Communications, Media and Broadband, during a subcommittee hearing titled “Ensuring Solutions to Meet America’s Broadband Needs” on Dec. 13.
U.S. Sen. Ben Ray Luján, chair of the Subcommittee on Communications, Media and Broadband, during a subcommittee hearing titled “Ensuring Solutions to Meet America’s Broadband Needs” on Dec. 13.
Image courtesy of the U.S. Senate Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation (screenshot)
During a U.S. Senate subcommittee hearing yesterday, expert witnesses outlined the various barriers to bridging the digital divide.

U.S. Sen. Ben Ray Luján — chair of the subcommittee on communications, media and broadband — convened the hearing titled “Ensuring Solutions to Meet America’s Broadband Needs.”

Much of the work in the digital equity space focuses on the three-pronged approach: access (broadband Internet and Internet-enabled devices are available), affordability (broadband services are affordable) and adoption (individuals have the digital literacy needed to subscribe to and use these services effectively).

However, within those categories, experts acknowledged that despite the opportunity created through historic federal investments, barriers to eliminating the digital divide remain, including permitting challenges and the sustainability of financial supports.


Sen. John Thune underlined the need to address permitting hurdles, noting that he has observed industry stakeholders continue to raise concerns about delays and costs associated with permitting requests.

This concern was echoed by Hon. Michael Powell, president and CEO of NCTA - The Internet and Television Association. Powell said that the federal government and other government agencies have within their power the ability to reduce barriers for permitting, both on federal lands and within communities.

Jonathan Spalter, president and CEO of USTelecom, stated his belief that there should be greater coordination with state and local authorities to ensure that permitting barriers be combated. He noted that in certain places, such as Bureau of Land Management land, the permitting process can be complex and cumbersome, sometimes adding years to broadband build-out. He argued that a collective approach between agencies would help to reduce or eliminate barriers.

One potential strategy that is being employed to combat this, Spalter detailed, is the requirement of states to share their plans to streamline permitting and right-of-way processes under the Broadband Equity, Access and Deployment (BEAD) Program.

“This is going to be at least one way to standardize permitting approaches on a national and harmonized basis,” he said. “And we hope that this will take root, and also just raise the visibility on the need to actually address permitting challenges fully and finally.”

A coordinated approach between government agencies is going to be crucial for tackling the digital divide regarding permitting, but also beyond.

Collaboration and engagement is needed in the challenge process for the Federal Communications Commission’s broadband maps to ensure that programs and agencies are directing resources to those who need it the most, as underlined by Luján. In addition, experts noted that broadband funding is being distributed through over 130 programs across 15 agencies, which means collaboration will be important to avoid duplication.

While Powell credits Congress’ decision to require the Federal Communications Commission and the National Telecommunications and Information Administration to develop a Memorandum of Understanding to improve coordination, he believes Congress should take this a step further and create a set of external criteria to define and measure whether coordination is effectively being implemented.


Angela Siefer, executive director of the National Digital Inclusion Alliance (NDIA), said in her testimony that while Congress deserves credit for taking swift action during the COVID-19 pandemic, more action must be taken to provide long-term solutions and sustained funding.

Specifically, she pointed to the Affordable Connectivity Program (ACP), which will only last for the next several years unless action is taken to sustain funding. She also noted the need for sustained federal funding for digital skills training.

“As long as technology keeps changing, the work will keep changing,” Siefer said. “The divide will keep changing.”

All four witnesses — Powell, Spalter, Siefer and Kimball Sekaquaptewa, interim chair of the Connect New Mexico Council and chief technology director at the Santa Fe Indian School — noted that federal subsidies like that available through ACP lower barriers to broadband access.

And all four witnesses also argued that rather than create additional programs dedicated to broadband expansion, Congress should focus on adoption and investment in those that currently exist to maximize participation, as well as focus on ensuring long-term funding solutions for continued impact.

“There are changes that need to be made to the various programs Congress has established,” Thune acknowledged during the hearing. “We need to get to work to make sure they are as effective as possible.”