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Rural Broadband-Boosting Bills Would Enshrine Towns' Rights to Build Their Own Internet

If they can get traction, it will make small gains towards closing the digital divide.

by Kaleigh Rogers
Jan 19 2018, 2:00pm

Image: USAF

If you’re wondering whether the digital divide will be a voting issue in rural regions this midterm, here’s a clue: five separate rural broadband-focused bills were introduced in Congress this week, on both sides of the aisle. Each bill makes just a small step towards closing the digital divide but, collectively, they could make a real impact for rural communities.

One of the more significant proposals—and the only one with bipartisan support—would create a federal “dig once” rule. This means that any road construction using federal funding, there has to be an opportunity to also lay down fiber cable conduits, which can be used for high speed internet.

“Digging up existing roads to install fiber-optic cable is ten times more expensive than laying it at the outset,” Rep. David B. McKinley (R-WV), who co-sponsored the bill, said in a press release. “This solution will save costs and increase access for rural states like West Virginia.”

This would ensure that if the roads are getting dug up anyway, workers throw in some pipes while they’re at it to make everyone’s lives easier when it comes time to install internet infrastructure.

Another major proposal is the Community Broadband Act (CBA), introduced by a half dozen Democrats in the House. The CBA would define the rights of municipalities to decide for themselves whether or not to run a community broadband service.

Run like a utility, municipal networks allow for community control, high speeds and, because the local government isn’t out to turn a profit, more affordable options. But multiple states, egged on by Big Telecom, have enacted legislation to try to prevent towns from building their own internet. The CBA, which has been introduced before but never gained much traction, would restore town’s rights by prohibiting lower levels of government from blocking municipal networks.

Big telecom companies see municipal networks as a threat (perhaps because they actually provide affordable internet) and will be no fans of this kind of legislation. As one of the most powerful lobbies on the hill, it will be important to watch who stands up for this legislation and who stays quiet.

The rest of the bills, all introduced by GOP House Representatives, fall in line with the Executive Orders signed by President Donald Trump last week: mostly inconsequential bureaucratic stuff but, y’know, fine.

One bill simplifies the paperwork required to put up comms towers on federal land. Another requires National Telecommunications Information Administration to get a directory from all federal agencies of land that could be used for internet infrastructure. And the other bill would open up existing federal communications facilities for us by telecom companies or co-ops.

While introducing these measures is a nice show of good faith for rural voters, it will be interesting to see which, if anything, gains traction.

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