Bennet, Finkenauer Unveil Plan to Help Close the “Digital Divide” for Rural America

New Legislation Will Fix Broadband Maps, Bring Transparency to Broadband Pricing for Consumers

Washington, D.C. – Today, U.S. Senator Michael Bennet (D-CO) and Congresswoman Abby Finkenauer (D-IA) introduced The Broadband Transparency and Accountability Act of 2019 to reform how broadband companies report, and the federal government verifies and shares, data on affordable internet access across the country.

“Every home, hospital, school, and farm without broadband is a failure of our ambition to build a 21st century economy for everyone,” said Bennet.“For years, the FCC’s flawed data collection has kept us from knowing who in America has broadband and who does not—especially in rural areas. Our bill strengthens broadband data so that we can better target federal investments to close the digital divide.”

“Federal grant and loan programs are designed to bring broadband to underserved areas—but that’s not possible without accurate maps, drawn from good data,” said Finkenauer. “Access to broadband is vital to our small businesses and farmers, who depend on it to identify new customers, sell their products, and create jobs in their communities. I’ll keep ensuring that Iowans’ voices are heard in Congress on this important issue.”

Since 2000, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) has required Internet Service Providers (ISPs) to report, via Form 477, the census blocks in which they offer internet service. This data helps determine which areas receive federal support to close the “digital divide.” However, the current reporting process is deeply flawed. For example, if ISPs report a single home in a census block as served, then the entire block is considered served. A recent Government Accountability Office report found that broadband data reported to the FCC by ISPs “does not accurately or completely capture broadband access.” This is especially true in rural areas. Since federal dollars cannot be deployed to areas already being served—a policy intended to prevent “overbuilding”—this inaccurate data restricts competition and inflates prices in many rural areas across the country. Additionally, data reported through Form 477 is not available to the public in a readily accessible format, and no formal process exists to verify or challenge its accuracy.

The Broadband Transparency and Accountability Act addresses these problems by requiring ISPs to report granular, address-level data for attributes including speed, affordability, latency, and denials of service. The bill also strengthens accountability by establishing robust verification and challenge processes for the data reported. Finally, the bill strengthens transparency by requiring the FCC to create an interactive national map of available broadband service, publicly report on the number of broadband subscribers, and share underlying data collected through the Form 477 process with other stakeholders while safeguarding for privacy.

A summary of the bill can be found here. Bill text and other resources can be found at: www.bennet.senate.gov/broadband.

STATEMENTS OF SUPPORT

“The National Digital Inclusion Alliance fully supports the Broadband Accountability and Transparency Act. For the first time, the FCC would have a mandate to gather and make available consumer price data for home broadband service. The cost of home broadband service keeps millions of households from subscribing. The more data communities have on the real cost of home broadband service, the more targeted the solutions can be,” said Angela Siefer, Executive Director, National Digital Inclusion Alliance.

“The Broadband Accountability and Transparency Act is the strongest bill yet seeking to ensure that the federal government collects accurate data about who in the US has access to broadband Internet access and who doesn’t. By, among other things, requiring broadband providers to report broadband deployment and other important data on an address-level and mandating that the FCC update its maps more often, make the data available to the public and establish a formal challenge and verification process, the Act will ensure that future broadband policymaking will be based on real world data, not guesswork. Senator Bennet and Representative Finkenauer should be commended for this thoughtful and comprehensive proposal to repair the FCC’s broken data collection process. Congress should pass this bill without delay,” said Gigi Sohn, Distinguished Fellow, Georgetown Law Institute for Technology Law & Policy and former Counselor to the Chairman of the Federal Communications Commission.

“The Broadband Transparency and Accountability Act is an effective and comprehensive data collection bill. By requiring internet service providers to report more granular information on Form 477, including pricing and affordability, data caps, and service denials, the bill will enable the FCC to more accurately map where broadband is available and share relevant service information with consumers. This detailed information is essential for creating a relevant national broadband map, which both the FCC and Congress can use to craft effective broadband deployment policies. We applaud Sen. Bennet and Rep. Finkenauer for their leadership in promoting transparency and closing the digital divide,” said Phillip Berenbroick, Policy Director, Public Knowledge.

“The Broadband Transparency and Accountability Act is important legislation, as it will hold companies accountable for delivering the internet speeds that consumers purchase. Additionally, better data creates better maps so federal, state, and local funding can be deployed in appropriate locations to improve broadband infrastructure and provide customers with the speed and quality they need,” said Miriam Gillow-Wiles, Executive Director of Southwest Colorado Council of Governments.

“As an economic development planning agency with the responsibility of assisting with the cultivation of strategies to grow our rural economy, this bill would be helpful in both assessing the actual broadband capacity of an area by census block as opposed to general provider statements that are more designed in marketing their services. Of equal or more importance is the regulatory impact toward consumer protection in setting up accurate expectations of broadband service,” said Kevin Wilkins, Executive Director, San Luis Valley Council of Governments

“With reliable, high-speed broadband becoming a necessity for modern life, it’s well past time to update how broadband services are reported and recorded at the federal level. The Broadband Accountability and Transparency Act will establish a stronger process for reporting and recording existing broadband availability while providing much-needed accountability for self-reported data. Delta-Montrose Electric Association has spurred the deployment of broadband in Western Colorado and fully supports the Broadband Accountability and Transparency Act, because it will ultimately improve the quality of broadband for citizens throughout the nation,” said Kent Blackwell, Chief Technical Officer, Delta-Montrose Electric Association.

“The rural digital divide is real. It hurts students that can’t do their homework, our local clinics that can’t get the bandwidth to run their patient medical records, and in so many other ways. Rural access and speeds are uneven. Today, an anchor institution like the court house, and nearby neighborhoods, often have speeds that are the equivalent of dialup. We need accurate neighborhood level data to fix the growing rural digital divide. The Broadband Transparency and Accountability Act will help,” said Paul Major, President & CEO, Telluride Foundation.

Michael Bennet, Colorado’s senior U.S. Senator, serves as Ranking Member of the Agriculture Subcommittee on Conservation, Forestry, and Natural Resources.

By Brian Allmer - The BARN

Brian Allmer & the BARN are members of the National Association of Farm Broadcasting (NAFB), the Colorado FFA Foundation, the Colorado 4H Foundation, the Colorado Farm Show Marketing Committee, 1867 Club Board Member, Denver Ag & Livestock Club Member, the Weld County Fair Board, the Briggsdale FFA Advisory Council, Briggsdale 4H Club Beef Leader & Founder / Coordinator of the Briggsdale Classic Open Jackpot Show.