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House committee approves $43 billion rural broadband bill

The White House says that 35% of rural families lack high-speed internet. The pandemic accelerated the shift to online commerce, education, and health care.

On a voice vote, the House Agriculture Committee approved a bill on Wednesday to provide $43 billion over eight years to bring broadband service to hundreds of thousands of families and businesses that lack access now. Chairman David Scott said Democratic leaders were “looking to move this in an expeditious way to the Senate.”

The bulk of the money, $36 billion, would go to loans, grants, and loan guarantees for the construction or improvement of internet service in small towns and rural areas with poor or no service. An additional $2.4 billion would pay for pilot projects to test various broadband technologies.

A “broadband mapping” provision would help local groups measure their internet service and prove they need better service. There have been complaints for years that internet providers overstate their coverage areas and connectivity speeds.

The White House says that 35% of rural families lack high-speed internet. The pandemic accelerated the shift to online commerce, education, and health care.

“It is impossible to overstate how important it is that we get every single resident of rural America connected to high-speed and affordable broadband,” said Scott, a Georgia Democrat. “This connectivity is a lifeline in so many ways for so many people.”

Republicans and Democrats worked together on the bill, proof “we can reach agreement in extraordinary times,” said the committee’s senior Republican, who immediately warned Democrats against partisan handling of infrastructure legislation. President Biden reached a compromise with a bipartisan group of senators in June for a $1.2 trillion infrastructure bill, including $65 billion for broadband access throughout the nation. Senate Democrats are working on a second “human infrastructure” bill that they could pass on their own.

Although committee support for the broadband bill was bipartisan, Democrats did most of the talking during the two-hour session, which ended with approval of the bill with no objections. Rep. Abigail Spanberger, a Virginia Democrat, said access to broadband was the “existential question” for rural community growth.

Although the broadband bill carried a hefty price tag, there was no guarantee the money would flow. If the bill becomes law, Congress would have to hold separate votes to provide funding. Rep. Jim Costa, a California Democrat, asked if broadband improvements could be financed through an agency known as the “USDA’s bank,” which can spend up to $30 billion before asking Congress for a replenishment, but he did not get a direct answer.

Information about the broadband bill, HR 4374, including changes made during the markup session, is available here.

Produced with FERN, non-profit reporting on food, agriculture, and environmental health.
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