At Broadband Hearing, Chair Cantwell Calls for Smart Investment To Close The Digital Divide In Communities Across America

March 17, 2021

Opening Statement Video | Audio | Transcripts

Only 63% of rural Americans report having broadband access; those who do pay an average of 37% more for broadband than urban subscribers 

Cantwell: “We need our rural communities to be on a level playing field” 

Cantwell: “What we do next has to be done right to make sure we are truly closing the gap in broadband service”

WASHINGTON, D.C. – U.S. Senator Maria Cantwell (D-WA), Chair of the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation, today convened a hearing on the challenges our country faces in delivering equitable broadband access in communities all around the country.

“The last year has been a very stark reminder about how important broadband connectivity is to Americans,” Chair Cantwell said. “As we’ve faced a pandemic, the internet has become the place to go to work, to attend school, to see friends, to help visit the doctors, and do many of the day-to-day things that we've all had to do in our lives. We’ve had to struggle throughout the pandemic, but imagine what life would have been like if we didn't have the internet during that time period. For millions of Americans, they don't have to imagine, because some of them really didn't have access to the internet.”

The hearing underscored the wide gap that remains between those who have broadband and those who do not.  Dr. Christopher Ali of the University of Virginia submitted testimony that rural Americans pay on average 37 percent more for broadband than urban subscribers.  “That truly is unacceptable,” Chair Cantwell said.  Dr. Ali also noted that only 63 percent of rural Americans report having a broadband internet connection at home.

Chair Cantwell shared a story from her home state of Washington, where a principal from the Columbia School District near Spokane described the impact of remote learning on her school where close to 70% of the students lack access to broadband.

“The stories that I hear from my home state in Washington are heartbreaking,” Chair Cantwell said. “Even those who did have access often lacked a strong enough signal for more than one of their children to attend virtual class, putting the parents in an impossible dilemma of who's going to go to school that day. The principal's conclusion reads like a wake-up call for policy in this space: ‘the need for appropriate internet and cellular coverage in Stevens County,’ the principal said, ‘is now glaring at us like a neon light.’ I couldn't agree more that it's glaring at us, and we need to get the next phase right.”

Chair Cantwell has long fought for more robust, efficient, and cost-effective broadband connectivity for communities throughout Washington state and the rest of the country. Last year, she joined Senator Markey in introducing comprehensive legislation to ensure all students have access to internet during the coronavirus crisis, and helped secure $7.1 billion in funding for that type of program in the American Rescue Plan Act.  In December 2020, Chair Cantwell championed a $1 billion program to increase broadband availability for Tribal communities throughout the country, and was part of a bipartisan group of legislators who created a $3.2 billion Emergency Broadband Benefit program to increase broadband affordability for consumers facing economic challenges from the COVID crisis. She also supported the creation of a new $200 million telehealth program at the FCC to increase the availability of telehealth services during the pandemic, and then worked with her colleagues to provide an additional $249 million for that program in December 2020. 

In February of 2020, Cantwell introduced the Bridging the Tribal Digital Divide Act of 2020 to accelerate the deployment of broadband services to Tribal communities and bridge the digital divide many of them face. In 2018, Cantwell helped secure  $600 million in funding to boost rural broadband development, and before that she worked with the Makah Tribe and CenturyLink to bring broadband access to Neah Bay, one of the most remote parts of Washington state.

Chair Cantwell concluded by laying out a path forward to make thoughtful, targeted reforms to strengthen federal broadband programs and increase coordination across programs.

“My hope is that the committee can develop a strong bipartisan framework to look at this issue as we move forward.” Cantwell said. “These are important tools for an information age. This is how we live and work, and socialize, and educate the next generation, so I hope we can get this right.”

Video of Chair Cantwell’s opening statement can be found HERE and audio is HERE.

Video of Chair Cantwell’s Q&A with witnesses can be found HERE and audio is HERE.

Video of Chair Cantwell’s second round of questioning is HERE and audio is HERE.

Transcripts can be found HERE.