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State Leaders, Experts Sort Through Federal Broadband Bills

New proposed federal bills address everything from reporting of Internet speeds to a universal broadband definition for federal programs, but different leaders and experts raise points and questions about the laws' potential practical value.

In recent weeks, members of the U.S. Congress have announced a number of broadband-related bills that aim to ensure that local communities have a better chance of delivering high-speed Internet to their residents. 

But would these acts, if passed, lead to meaningful results? Government Technology spoke to a number of leaders and experts about the implications of three particular pieces of legislation. Their differing opinions highlight the great complexity of the broadband issue.

The Broadband Speed Act

This bill, introduced by Rep. Antonio Delgado, D-N.Y., would require companies to report the actual speeds they provide to customers “based on a reasonable sample.” It also calls for companies to be fined if they “willfully or knowingly” report inaccurate speeds. 

Kenrick Gordon, director of the Maryland Governor’s Office of Rural Broadband, couldn’t say whether such a law would be effective without knowing the regulations that would come with it.

“The concern would be that you’re still allowing the providers to certify the information,” Gordon said. “The fact that you’ve added fines to it … may or may not be conducive to getting better data from them.”

Will Rinehart, American Action Forum’s technology and innovation policy director, is unsure whether the bill would achieve that much, as the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) is already working on better Form 477 data. But Rinehart agrees with Gordon that the fine structure is the key question about the law. 

From a research standpoint, Rinehart would like to see the act address the sample question more specifically. The law could state, for instance, whether speed data should be examined at the building level. Rinehart said access to building data is a big deal to researchers.

Jojo Myers Campos, broadband development manager for the state of Nevada, is not sure who’s going to hold providers accountable, but she endorses the bill’s philosophy of demanding better speed reporting from companies. Campos said a provider reporting an inaccurate speed can block counties and towns from applying for federal and state funds. 

Arkansas Broadband Manager Nathan Smith said it’s hard for providers to ensure that a certain speed will always be available. A customer’s outdated hardware could cause the speed to be lower, for example. Smith also believes that proving whether a provider is “willfully or knowingly” providing false data could be a sticking point. 

“Better broadband data is good, but this might impose a problematic burden on providers,” Smith argued. 

Rinehart pointed to an FCC study that indicates that companies tend to provide the speeds they advertise. At the same time, he believes action must be taken in cases of deception. 

“The FCC does have some evidence that some companies aren’t really keeping their promises, and they should be going after those companies,” he said.

The Community Broadband Mapping Act

This proposal, also introduced by Delgado, would allow Rural Utilities Service telecommunications grants to help support broadband mapping efforts “by local governments, economic development or other community organizations, electric or telephone cooperatives and small Internet providers.”

Smith said funding data collection directly makes sense because of the financial uncertainty involved with creating broadband maps. 

“Sometimes you might make your application process such that you have to prove that the service isn’t there in order to apply for funds,” Smith said. “It’s expensive to prove it isn’t there. So you take a big risk in trying to collect the data in order to apply for funds.”

Campos said current broadband maps are “all over the board,” which doesn’t help local areas attempting to get funding for their projects. She supports this bill because people “can’t keep chasing a digit that doesn’t actually exist.” 

Rinehart said it’s good the bill at least tries to solve a big issue, but he doesn’t know how much impact the law could have. Some mapping projects can be a multimillion-dollar problem, and the grants referenced in the act are “pretty small.” 

Gordon also had concerns about the practicality of this legislation. While he believes a codified version of the bill could be a plus for states and local areas, it mentions certain programs, such as the Distance Learning and Telemedicine Grant Program, that have nothing to do with Internet speed testing. 

“I understand what they were trying to do, but I think they did a shotgun shot to something that probably should have been a more specific drafting,” Gordon said. 

The Broadband Parity Act

This bill, introduced last week by Sens. Jacky Rosen, D-Nev., and Shelley Moore Capito, D-W.Va., would require federal broadband programs to adopt the FCC’s definition of broadband: 25 Mbps/3 Mbps. 

Smith said it ultimately makes sense to standardize the definition of broadband. However, he can see how this change might not necessarily be to rural Arkansas’ advantage. Right now, certain programs stipulate 10 Mbps/1 Mbps, which opens up the door for smaller communities that don’t even have that lower speed yet. But if such programs raise the standard to 25/3, it’s possible rural areas would see more competition for funds. 

Campos said all projects should strive to meet the FCC standard of 25/3 at a minimum. In fact, she believes everyone should aim for speeds beyond that baseline. Further, when the FCC raises the standard again, that new baseline should be pursued.  

Gordon isn’t a fan of 10/1 being used as a baseline measure in federal programs. 

“I think certainly that that 10/1 needs to be raised to the 25/3, just so we have parity across the country,” Gordon said. “And obviously funding should be also at the 25/3 level. Why do we have a broadband measure that is not being complied with across government programs?”

For Rinehart's part, he has argued for one broadband standard for a long time, yet he doesn’t fully understand the justification for 25/3. He suggests that the FCC should work to establish a relationship between broadband speed thresholds and the things that individuals and businesses care about when it comes to Internet use. 

Gordon added that he personally believes 100 Mbps/100 Mbps will be a necessary standard soon due to the growing number of ways that the Internet is being used. In other words, the bandwidth could wind up being stretched very thin if 25/3 remains the standard for too long. 

Jed Pressgrove has been a writer and editor for about 15 years. He received a bachelor’s degree in journalism and a master’s degree in sociology from Mississippi State University.