House passes 'pretty minor' broadband bill, expert says

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The U.S. House passed a bill Wednesday that would create an office inside the National Telecommunications and Information Administration focused on expanding broadband access and streamlining federal support for broadband-expansion programs.

The ACCESS BROADBAND Act — a lengthy acronym — was introduced in February by Reps. Paul Tonko, D-N.Y., and Susan Brooks, R-Ind. Primarily, it would establish an office of Office of Internet Connectivity and Growth within the NTIA.

The NTIA already considers broadband expansion a priority, and recently worked with eight states to create broadband coverage maps to improve the accuracy of national coverage maps. The bill also proposes that the office collect new information, like how many U.S. residents receive broadband from each federal support program, and an estimate of the economic impact that receiving broadband has on communities.

But at least one expert says the bill won’t make a difference in actually connecting underserved U.S. residents to the internet.

“This is a pretty minor sort of tweak,” said Chris Mitchell, director of the Institute for Local Self Reliance, a municipal broadband advocacy group. “That’s not to say its not worth doing, its just that I wouldn’t consider it something that’s going to significantly change broadband in America. The federal government’s best role is to help fund, providing loans, grants and things like that.”

The bill doesn’t mention how the office would be funded. Nonetheless, if established, the office would create a single application for all federal broadband support programs, effectively streamlining the process, and an informational website on those programs. It would also hold regional workshops and publish broadband-focused pamphlets and white papers for municipalities.

Many of these things are not new, like local conferences,” he said. “NTIA’s been having local conferences. They have people that are doing this stuff.”

This isn’t the first time that Congress has proposed a new office within the federal government’s telecommunication regulatory agencies. Tonko introduced a nearly identical bill last session, but it stalled in the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation. The current version of the bill was referred to the same committee on Thursday, along with companion legislation introduced by Republicans Cory Gardner of Colorado and Marsha Blackburn of Tennessee, and Nevada Democrat Catherine Cortez Masto.

Separately, a bipartisan group of four senators introduced their own bill in February to establish a rural broadband office within the Federal Communications Commission, but no action has been taken upon it since its introduction.

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Broadband, Digital divide, National Telecommunications and Information Administration
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