U.S. Sen. Roger Wicker, R-Miss., chairman of the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation, will convene a hearing titled, “The State of Broadband Amid the COVID-19 Pandemic,” at 10:00 a.m. on Wednesday, May 13, 2020. The hearing will examine the ongoing initiatives led by the Federal Communications Commission to maintain and expand high-speed and reliable broadband connections to all Americans during this national public health emergency. The hearing will also examine the impact of funds provided through the CARES Act to support broadband initiatives at the federal, state, and local levels, and legislative proposals focused on addressing the digital divide during the COVID-19 outbreak.
- Mr. Steven Berry, President and Chief Executive Officer, Competitive Carriers Association
- Ms. Shirley Bloomfield, Chief Executive Officer, NTCA - The Rural Broadband Association
- Mr. Gene Kimmelman, Senior Advisor, Public Knowledge
- Mr. Jonathan Spalter, President and Chief Executive Officer, USTelecom - The Broadband Association
*Witness list subject to change
Wednesday, May 13, 2020
Full Committee Hearing
This hearing will take place in the Dirksen Senate Office Building G50. Witness testimony, opening statements, and a live video of the hearing will be available on www.commerce.senate.gov.
*In order to maintain physical distancing as advised by the Office of the Attending Physician, seating for credentialed press will be limited throughout the course of the hearing. Due to current limited access to the Capitol complex, the general public is encouraged to view this hearing via the live stream.
**Note: Witness list updated 5/7/2020
Chairman Roger Wicker
The COVID-19 crisis has changed life dramatically for almost every American. As the Administration and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention encourage social distancing to prevent further spread of the virus, normal activities like work, school, and health-care services are now increasingly taking place online. This has caused a huge uptick in the use of broadband. One estimate shows that average broadband usage is up by 47 percent since the pandemic began.
The good news is that there has been some progress in connecting all Americans. The FCC’s recently released Broadband Deployment Report tells us that the number of households without access to broadband service continues to decline. Yet, despite these advances, there is still significant work that needs to be done to get every American connected.
The current public health crisis has made these efforts all the more urgent. I appreciate initiatives led by the FCC to sustain and accelerate the availability of broadband connections. This includes the Keep Americans Connected Pledge, where providers have committed not terminate broadband services to any residential or small business customers because of an inability to pay their bills among other commitments, along with temporary modifications to existing Universal Service Fund (USF) programs to support the surging demand for an internet service – these commitments have been done with some inconvenience and cost to those making the pledge and I appreciate that.
The bipartisan CARES Act also provided federal resources to broadband-related programs in response to COVID-19. For example, the FCC received $200 million for a telehealth program that is designed to provide immediate assistance to eligible health-care providers to support their broadband needs. The CARES Act also provided $13 billion to the Department of Education to support distance learning. These resources can be used to ensure students have access to broadband, digital devices, and other equipment to continue their learning from home.
Today’s hearing is an opportunity to discuss what more can be done to address immediate connectivity needs stemming from the COVID-19 crisis.
Critically, efforts to expand broadband access depend upon accurately identifying unserved areas and communities. The Broadband DATA Act, which was recently signed into law, will help provide the FCC with more precise data about where broadband is available and where it is not – and at what speeds.
The FCC will soon begin rolling out new and important USF programs, such as the 5G Fund. The FCC is currently seeking comment on whether to implement the Broadband DATA Act before moving forward with the 5G Fund. This program will succeed however only if the FCC follows the law. I look forward to working with members of this committee and the Appropriations Committee to ensure the Commission has the funding it needs to implement the Broadband DATA Act.
There have also been several legislative proposals in both chambers of Congress to prioritize the delivery of broadband services during this outbreak.
I hope witnesses will discuss the merits of these proposals and how they will provide immediate relief and connectivity to Americans.
We also need a regulatory framework that fosters investment and promotes broadband deployment.
I look forward to discussing how to ensure all levels of government have the appropriate regulatory processes in place to promote rather than create barriers to broadband build-out. This includes making sure broadband providers have access to permits in a timely manner to maintain and upgrade their networks to support increased demand for internet services.
As more Americans rely on their internet connections to maintain contact with colleagues and loved ones, enhancing network security and resiliency is also a top priority for this Committee.
I hope to learn more about how dedicating resources to the FCC’s newly authorized “rip and replace” program, in addition to other initiatives, will help keep our networks secure, enhance our ability to get Americans back to work, and expand broadband access.
Finally, I wish to thank our country’s broadband network providers and technicians for their tireless efforts to make sure Americans stay connected during this pandemic – so thank you to all of those individuals. Unlike in other countries, the surge in online traffic and bandwidth consumption in the United States has not diminished network performance; nor has it required the slowing of online services and applications. Instead, U.S. providers have been able to meet the growing demand, allowing Americans to continue enjoying high-quality internet services throughout this pandemic – and that is a fine accomplishment.
So, I thank the witnesses, again, for being here and for participating remotely. And with that, I will turn to my dear friend and Ranking Member, Senator Cantwell, for her opening remarks.
Ranking Member Maria CantwellCANTWELL: Thank you, Mr. Chairman, and thank you for holding this important hearing and thank you to our witnesses for appearing today, both in person and virtually to discuss solutions. The COVID crisis has made it crystal clear: functioning broadband is absolutely necessary for every American home. We’ve spent a lot of time in this committee over the last several years talking about the persistent digital divide and the harms that come to both our economy and society. But we have not done enough to close that divide. And now, we are in the middle of a crisis where people who are disconnected from school, work, healthcare, friends, and family need access urgently. Staying connected is as critical as ever, and as one of our witnesses will say today, Mr. Kimmelman, broadband is essential, but right now it’s without universal access.It’s no wonder that, according to Pew Research, the majority of Americans now consider broadband connectivity to be essential in their lives. And yet millions of American families still do not have access to this essential service. The FCC reports that at least 18 million Americans lack access to broadband and support the number--suspect the number--is significantly higher. Millions of them have Internet connections that can support essential applications and software for remote learning, but there are many who cannot. And the glaring disparities between those who cannot now afford to deliver those services into the home because of cost is also something this committee should consider.That is why we must address our short-term emergency needs, and also invest in closing the digital divide. To put it into perspective, the Pew Research nationally showed that 35 percent of households with school-aged children and annual incomes below $30,000 do not have access to high-speed Internet at home. 25 percent of African American homes and 23 percent of Hispanic homes with school-aged children do not have access to high-speed Internet at home. And in the state of Washington, more than two thirds of our school districts responded to a recent survey showing that some of the families could just simply not afford broadband services.Statewide, 16 percent of families with children have no access to broadband. And, the Spokane school district recently did a survey of 34 different schools and found varying degrees of connectivity and concerns by teachers about who could fully engage in distance learning. That’s why I want to thank Senator Markey for his tireless efforts to close the homework gap. I’m proud to be a cosponsor of legislation that he has for emergency FCC E-rate funding to address this need and try to close the gap.And also, COVID has demonstrated the importance of healthcare during this crisis. COVID-19 has changed the healthcare delivery system. Primary care physicians are closing their offices around the country to inpatient care. People are afraid to go to the hospital to seek out necessary care because of the infection. So telehealth has become the best way to protect the public during the COVID crisis. Andclinics in my state have transitioned to using telehealth as the first contact with each patient. In fact, some clinics in my state report around 90 percent of their initial contacts with patients now occur online. That is why it’s so important to make sure that people have access to broadband if our healthcare delivery system in initial contacts are going to move in that direction.The CDC recommends that health clinics throughout the country use remote contact with patients as their first line of defense for COVID-19. But that only works if those clinics and those patients have broadband. A recent Brookings report cited the lack of broadband or insufficient broadband service to support remote diagnostics as a key barrier to widespread use of telehealth. So I want to again thank some of our colleagues, Senator Schatz, who has been leading the charge to support a telehealth package as part of the COVID—next COVID round of packages. And we need to make sure that these services are widely available, allowing patients to access the care they need. The added benefit for doctors is they can actually care for more patients in a day, take the pressure off of their colleagues who are dealing with the COVID crisis.So, broadband also can help the understanding of COVID-19. The FCC has already compared health outcomes like diabetes with broadband availability, and I want to thank Senator Rosen for her work pressing the FCC to study additional issues like maternal health outcomes and other issues related to broadband availability.And lastly, Mr. Chairman, I wanted to bring up Indian Country. This represents a nearly 27 percent— point gap in non-tribal to tribal areas when it comes to broadband access. This gap only widens, according to a report by the FCC, that when 31 percent of households on tribal lands lack access to highspeed broadband compared to 7 percent in non-tribal areas. So, I want to thank my colleagues Senators Udall and Tester for their continued work in delivering broadband to Indian Country, and it’s clear we have to make sure new tools are put in place to make up for the shortfalls that we currently see.Broadband activity can be a great equalizer in this country. But, if access is not there, then we can see right here and now during the COVID crisis the challenges to our education system, our healthcare system, and just basic contact with family and loved ones.So, I look forward to hearing from the witnesses today in what we can do to close this gap immediately. Thank you, Mr. Chairman.
Witness Panel 1
Mr. Steven BerryPresident and Chief Executive OfficerCompetitive Carriers Association
Ms. Shirley BloomfieldChief Executive OfficerNTCA - The Rural Broadband Association
Mr. Gene KimmelmanSenior AdvisorPublic Knowledge
Mr. Jonathan SpalterPresident and Chief Executive OfficerUSTelecom - The Broadband Association