WASHINGTON — Local and regional broadband projects may get a boost from Washington based on a bipartisan effort led by Sen. Shelley Moore Capito, R-W.Va.
Capito and Sen. Maggie Hassan, D-N.H., on Tuesday reintroduced the Rural Broadband Financing Flexibility Act, which would help states, cities,and towns spur investment in rural broadband projects.
The goal is to provide state and local governments options relating to financing broadband projects, including the issuance of tax-exempt bonds, public-private partnerships, federal tax credits and federal bond payment assistance.
“Since launching Capito Connect in 2015, I’ve been pursuing every angle to ensure rural areas get reliable, affordable connectivity,” Capito said. “This legislation will provide additional funding opportunities for communities looking to invest in rural broadband. I’m proud to team up with Senator Hassan again to reintroduce this legislation that will help close the digital divide in West Virginia and across rural America by incentivizing buildout and expanding financing options.”
“The COVID-19 pandemic has made even more clear that Granite State families and small businesses need fast and reliable internet access to succeed in today’s economy,” Hassan said. “This bipartisan bill would provide rural communities in New Hampshire with new financing options to expand their broadband infrastructure so that every household can get connected.”
Connecting those households and the problems associated in accomplishing that surfaced in a widespread way during the pandemic, when many students in rural areas did not have broadband access for the virtual learning experience necessitated by the closing of schools.
According to West Virginia Can’t Wait broadband expansion website, the state ranks 47th among the 50 states for broadband connectivity. Fully half a million people, 30 percent of the state’s residents, have no access to a high-speed, reliable internet.
“This lack, felt most severely in our rural places (where nearly half of people have no access), limits education, economic development, tourism, business creation and expansion–and even where we and our kids choose to live,” the organization said.
To help close that digital divide, Capito and Hassan have also reintroduced the Rural Reasonable and Comparable Wireless Access Act to help ensure that there is equitable wireless and broadband service in rural and urban areas, which has long been undefined.
The two senators also cosponsored the bipartisan Broadband Deployment Accuracy and Technological Availability (DATA) Act, which was signed into law last year. The bill pushes the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) to improve its broadband coverage maps by directing the FCC to require more detailed coverage data from service providers, and develop a process for consumers and stakeholders to challenge the accuracy of those broadband maps.
As money from the American Jobs Plan starts flowing into states and localities, the opportunity to maximize the use of that money may be helped with federal leverage.
Mercer County Commissioner Greg Puckett said recently broadband is the priority and at least some of the $11.4 million Mercer County is slated to receive from the Jobs Plan will be directed at broadband extension, hopefully on a regional bases to get the most bang for the buck.
“You don’t build a house without a solid foundation,” he said, “Broadband is the core of what we are going to see for the next 50 years. We get that return if we invest now.”
The goal, he said, is to look at the long-term value of the work that will be done with the money and what benefits the most people.
“Working together (in the region, including Virginia counties) can be an excellent way to get more done,” he said of the broader infrastructure projects like broadband. “We need to have lots of cooperative agreements. If we don’t work together we may trip over each other.”
Puckett said another component is to figure out how money can be leveraged. whether at the state or federal level.
Another factor is the proposed $2.2 trillion American Jobs Plan, which many legislators, including Capito, who is Ranking Member of the Senate Environment and Public Works (EPW) Committee, and Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., want to trim closer to $1 trillion or less and focus only on infrastructure, including broadband.
Both want a bipartisan bill and Capito said after meeting with Pres. Joe Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris on the issue last week that she is optimistic.
“I am very encouraged by our meeting with President Biden…” she said. “We had another positive and substantive discussion about how to address our nation’s infrastructure challenges in a bipartisan way. We listened to one another, and I felt that the president was receptive to our ideas and viewpoints. Going forward, my colleagues and our staffs will continue to work together and with the White House toward our common goal of addressing the core areas of infrastructure that we all agree upon.”
Capito and her colleagues earlier revealed a $568 billion infrastructure plan as a start in those negotiations for a bipartisan effort.