Members of the House Energy and Commerce Subcommittee on Communications and Technology agreed at a Feb. 17 hearing that the COVID-19 pandemic has further exposed the “equity gap” in broadband access, and called for both expanding service access in rural areas of the United States, and creating more affordable service access in urban areas of the country.

“We all know that our nation needs to invest in deploying new networks, particularly in rural communities, if we’re going to ensure that everyone can get online,” Rep. Michael Doyle, D-Pa., chairman of the subcommittee said. “But what I think is more concerning about the data presented … is that far too many people go without because they can’t afford service.”

Rep. Doyle pointed out that some 77 million Americans do not have access to an adequate home internet connection, “due to high prices or a lack of connectivity.”

This subcommittee’s broadband hearing comes at a critical time, after the full Energy and Commerce Committee approved a $7.6 billion measure just last week for an Emergency Connectivity Fund for students and teachers. Although that would be a huge step in addressing the broadband access gap, the committee is hoping to work with the Biden administration and the Senate to pass a more permanent solution to close the digital divide.

“We need bigger permanent broadband benefits that come with a progressive sustainable funding source, not increased regressive contributions,” Matthew Wood, vice president of policy and general counsel at Free Press Action said during the Feb. 17 subcommittee hearing. “We also need lower prices and increased choice from competition policy and restored FCC authority, so the agency can do more than just ask ISPs [internet service providers] to pledge just and reasonable service for all.”

Wood also noted that although the COVID-19 pandemic has proven broadband is an essential utility, it also has “changed nothing, merely highlighting and heightening the racial injustice and income inequality” the U.S. faces.

According to U.S. Census data, Wood said that “13 million Black people, 18 million Latinx people, and 13 million indigenous Americans are without the broadband services they need.”

“Broadband is an equity issue. It’s not just getting access in rural America, it’s getting affordability in urban America,” Rep. Peter Welch, D-Vt., added. “So this is about equity. And there has to be two things. One: federal investment. That’s number one. But number two: local partnerships.”

Wood stressed that Federal funding is needed, but also agreed that broadband service prices will not drop without “competition, oversight and more robust adoption subsidies.”

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Grace Dille
Grace Dille
Grace Dille is MeriTalk's Assistant Managing Editor covering the intersection of government and technology.