November 19, 2019

Expanding Broadband Access to Rural Communities

A Matter of Justice is at Stake

Jeanne Johnson of Caledonia, Missouri raises sheep and goats in Missouri, but must drive four miles to a gas station for internet access. At her 420-acre farm, she pays $170 a month for satellite internet service, but it is too slow even to upload photos, let alone conduct business. Ms. Johnson is 60-years-old and describes the feeling of not having access to proper high-speed internet, “We don't feel like we're worth it.” Even the county’s 911 dispatch center sometimes loses its connection to the state emergency system.

Approximately twenty-five million Americans lack high-speed internet (or “broadband”) access, 96% of whom live in rural areas. At least forty states contain one county or more that is severely underpopulated, disincentivizing internet providers to cover these geographic areas for the few people who would benefit from service. Inadequate access to high-speed internet creates an array of disadvantages for those living in remote areas, including a potential justice gap not experienced in more populated areas. For example, lawyers in rural Colorado must drive 40 to 70 miles to secure enough broadband coverage to upload briefs to the Colorado Supreme Court or to access court resources. Furthermore, inadequate broadband connection deters young lawyers from moving to rural areas due to the lack of internet access. A lack of lawyers in a rural community can result in limited access to legal support for an entire community. That is not acceptable.

The Federal Communications Commission collects data on broadband internet access from internet service providers (ISPs) across the country. These providers regularly self-report to the FCC on whether a geographic area has broadband internet access and they respond in the affirmative even if only one house in the area has such access.

On October 27, 2019, in the Daily Sentinel newspaper, U.S. Senator Michael Bennet of Colorado explained the problem with this reporting scheme, “[A]reas shown as served then become ineligible for federal broadband dollars, without which it becomes prohibitively expensive to connect many rural areas. Put simply, the inaccurate data blocks competition — leaving many Coloradans with inflated prices and inadequate service. Compounding the problem, data reported by ISPs is not readily accessible to the public, making it harder to challenge its accuracy.”

Although over fifty bills have been introduced in Congress addressing challenges associated with broadband internet access, only two have passed a chamber: H.R. 1328,which would create an office to track the construction, use of, and access to any broadband infrastructure built using any Federal support in a central database, and H.R. 1359, which is designed to secure internet infrastructure and increase digital access around the world.

In the Senate, S.2275, and S. 1822 were introduced to improve mapping accuracy – a crucial process used to track broadband access to ensure that areas marked as served are in fact being served adequately.

In addition to these bills, both chambers of Congress are exploring other ways to expand high-speed internet access to rural America. On September 5, 2019, U.S. Senator John Thune (R-SD), Chairman of the Commerce Subcommittee on Communications, Technology, Innovation, and the Internet, convened a field hearing entitled, “Transforming Rural America: A New Era of Innovation”. This hearing included a panel of six expert witnesses in the telecommunications field who examined the innovations high-speed broadband services bring to rural America in a variety of sectors such as agriculture, education, health care, and small business.

On the House side, a “House Task Force on Rural Broadband” chaired by House Majority Whip James E. Clyburn (D-SC) was established to provide coordination and leadership to end the rural-digital divide and seeks to ensure all Americans have access to high speed internet by 2025.

On September 11, 2019, the Subcommittee on Communications and Technology in the US House Energy and Commerce Committee held a hearing entitled “Legislating to Connect America: Improving the Nation’s Broadband Maps” to consider five pieces of legislation for expanding broadband access and improving the accuracy of broadband maps:

H.R. 4229, H.R. 4128, H.R. 4227, H.R. 2643, and H.R. 3162.

In August, the FCC called for comments regarding its broadband data collection. More than $60 billion in public resources have been invested to bring broadband to rural America. However, the FCC reports roughly 24 million rural (and 1 million urban) Americans are still without high-speed internet access.

The American Bar Association adopted policy in August which urges Congress to enact legislation to ensure equal access to justice for Americans living in rural areas by assuring proper broadband access throughout the United States. This month, the ABA took this fight for justice and broadband access to Congress with a series of legislative meetings designed to provide an on-the-ground perspective from at least one rural state.

While no bills have passed both chambers, the flurry of legislative and regulatory activity indicates that this area of the law deserves attention. The sake of rural justice is at stake. Connect with your members of Congress at www.ambar.org/grassroots to write your elected officials and join our fight to expand broadband access to rural communities.