Communications sector experts from the private, nonprofit, and state government sectors told senators on Dec. 13 that the “once-in-a-generation” broadband expansion funding approved last year by Congress will only close the digital divide when underserved communities gain full connectivity – but there are still many obstacles to overcome in reaching that goal.

Witnesses at a hearing of the Senate Subcommittee on Communications, Media, and Broadband also voiced concerns about billions of dollars in resources failing to go to the neediest areas first due to inadequate coordination by government agencies.

Congress approved $65 billion of funding for broadband expansion and affordability in 2021 through the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act, and that money is now being parceled out through the Federal Communications Commission’s (FCC) Affordable Connectivity Program,  and the National Telecommunications and Information Administration’s (NTIA) Tribal Broadband Connectivity Program, among several others.

“Congress has taken the most important step to closing the digital divide by allocating enormous resources to the task, but money alone will not produce a successful outcome,” Michael Powell, president and CEO of NCTA – the Internet and Television Association, said.

“Success will require disciplined execution. Holistically, this effort involves over 100 programs administered by a dizzying array of government agencies,” he continued. “A lot can go wrong.”

Powell urged Congress to seek to “harmonize” the constellation of government broadband programs, explaining that there is a “serious risk” that poor coordination of the terms and conditions of these programs leads to “confusion, delay, waste and poor results.”

He also expressed concerns about certain areas not getting the broadband services they need because they are more expensive to serve due to their expansive and difficult terrain. Often, providers are required to get permits to create broadband infrastructure in these underserved communities, which slows the process down.

USTelecom CEO Jonathan Spalter echoed Powell’s concerns, adding, “Federal agencies [sit] on permits for years with no action. Much can be done by policymakers at all levels of government to eliminate barriers that deny or delay affordable, reliable high-speed connectivity for all.”

Spalter encouraged the subcommittee to pass legislation that would create a shot clock for agencies to approve or deny an application within 60 days or the application is deemed granted.

Additionally, all four of the witnesses testified to inaccuracies in the FCC’s national broadband map and called for the approaching Jan. 13, 2023, challenge deadline to be extended.

Kimball Sekaquaptewa, chair of Connect New Mexico Council, said, “In New Mexico, we estimate that the fabric is missing tens of thousands of eligible serviceable locations, losing up to $500 million in the funding allocation.”

She continued, “We ask that NTIA extend the Jan. 13, 2023, deadline to submit challenges to the FCC’s preliminary broadband map.”

All four witnesses also felt strongly about the work that needs to be done to ensure that once communities have the “historic” and “unprecedented” broadband funding they need, they are sufficiently digitally literate to use the technology.

“Access to the internet and the skills to use it are essential to not only survive but to thrive,” Angela Siefer, executive director of nonprofit National Digital Inclusion Alliance, said. “And thriving is essential to America’s promise, to the wellbeing of its people, and to the country’s ability to compete globally.”

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Cate Burgan
Cate Burgan
Cate Burgan is a MeriTalk Senior Technology Reporter covering the intersection of government and technology.