WASHINGTON, D.C. -- The House of Representatives on Wednesday approved a bill originally co-sponsored by U.S. Rep. Paul Tonko, D-Amsterdam, that would bring better coordination to federal efforts to expand broadband access in underserved areas.
The Access Broadband Act was adopted by unanimous voice vote after being introduced by Tonko and Republican U.S. Rep. Susan W. Brooks of Indiana.
According to Tonko, about 25 percent of all school districts in the country and about 25 percent of rural residents nationwide lack broadband internet.
"Reliable broadband internet access is an integral part of our American economy and modern way of life," Tonko said. "Whether for students doing homework, job-seekers training for a new career, doctors reading a medical scan or entrepreneurs starting a small business, we need to make sure that nobody is being left behind."
The bill would establish a federal Office of Internet Connectivity and Growth that would hold regional workshops on best practices and access strategies, consult with other agencies to develop a universal application for broadband access assistance, regardless of the federal agency involved, and coordinate among the Federal Communications Commission, Rural Utility Service of the Department of Agriculture and other internet support providers.
The legislation would also offer workshops for small businesses in how to apply for federal broadband access assistance.
The Office of Internet Connectivity would fall within the National Telecommunications and Information Administration, which is part of the Department of Commerce.
North Country U.S. Rep. Elise Stefanik, R-Schuylerville, signed on as a co-sponsor and supported the legislation, as did U.S. Rep. Antonio Delgado, D-Rhinebeck.
Stefanik's North Country/Adirondacks district has vast swathes of land with little or no broadband access, as does Delgado's district, which stretches from rural Montgomery County through the Catskills. While state officials say progress has been made under a $500 million initiative started in 2016, they acknowledge some areas remain unserved.
“Increasing access to broadband in a rural district like mine is critical to our North Country economy and school systems,” Stefanik said. “The Access Broadband Act streamlines the system by creating an office dedicated to expanding access to broadband so that communities can grow and thrive. The passage of this bipartisan legislation is a significant step in the right direction for the North Country, and I applaud the House for coming together to support it.”
Companion legislation has been introduced in the Senate. While similar legislation passed in the House in the last Congress, it was never taken up in the Senate.