Broadband Caucus Sets Sights on Rural Access Woes

Five of the Senate's most prominent voices on rural issues are joining forces for a new caucus dedicated to bringing high-speed internet access to the country's underserved regions - and overcoming logjams that have long hindered progress on that front.

Roughly 40 percent of Americans in rural areas still lack speedy web connections, according to the FCC, and the new Senate Broadband Caucus unveiled on Tuesday promises to focus more attention on remedying that "system of haves and have nots," Sen. Shelley Moore Capito (R-W.Va.), one of the group's founders, said in an interview.

The new caucus plans to consult with broadband carriers and write "accountability letters" to federal agencies that press them on whether existing broadband programs, such as the FCC's Connect America Fund, are achieving their goals, according to Capito. Lawmakers will be "asking to see good data, hard data that verifies these dollars are being spent" and whether they're "actually resulting in internet speeds that are current," she said.

But the caucus - whose members include Sens. Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.), Angus King (I-Maine), Heidi Heitkamp (D-N.D.) and John Boozman (R-Ark.) - doesn't have immediate plans to press for new government spending on broadband akin to what was included in the 2009 federal stimulus. And that may be a sign of how the politics (and price tag) of broadband reform remains as tricky as ever in Washington.

After Obama took office, lawmakers putting together an economic recovery package set aside more than $7 billion for broadband projects in underserved areas, particularly in rural parts of the country. Republicans expressed doubt about the programs, while Democrats supported them - and they would like to revive that effort. Hillary Clinton has pledged to provide all Americans with high-speed internet access by 2020, and her technology platform cited the Recovery Act programs as a model.

But those stimulus programs have long received mixed reviews. One of the initiatives, led by the Agriculture Department's Rural Utilities Service, struggled to award and monitor its tranche of funds - and ultimately, it wired millions of Americans fewer than its leaders had first promised, a POLITICO investigation uncovered last year.

Capito called the stimulus a "double-edged sword" for her state of West Virginia.

"We did get one of the largest amounts, but we ended up wasting it," she said in an interview. While she didn't specify the waste, a key, $120 million broadband project in the state drew D.C. scrutiny and a federal investigation for alleged misuse. Still, Capito argued that USDA and other agencies should be "plumped up and directed toward rural broadband."

Boozman, for his part, noted there's "frustration that there is not the appropriate resources going out to rural America." But he didn't seem ready to revive a big boost in government broadband aid. "I would have to look at exactly what we're going to do, and how it's going to be paid for," he said.

"Government can do those kinds of things if they have specific goals and the will to do so," added King in a separate interview. Even as he endorsed greater infrastructure spending, the Maine lawmaker added: "The problem is cost, and we're in a perennial deficit situation."

Klobuchar said she would strongly support an infrastructure package that directed big bucks to rural broadband - and offered a note of optimism about the road ahead.

"Politics right now is difficult to begin with. ... Broadband is one where there tends to be more bipartisan support," she said. "There was an initial push 10 years ago, then the stimulus bill ... [and now] it's coming up with a vengeance, and not just because it's an election year.”

By:  Tony Romm
Source: Politico Pro