The Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Subcommittee on Communications, Technology, Innovation and the Internet held a hearing on expanding access to the “Internet of Things” (IoT) in rural communities.  “Beyond generating simple conveniences, Internet of Things technologies are taking on more significant and vital roles in our lives,” Chairman Roger Wicker (R-Mississippi) argued in his opening statement.  Telemedicine in particular is an IoT technology that is expanding access to life-saving health care services in rural hospitals and clinics.  

Access to these life-improving technologies remains limited by the rate of broadband expansion to close the rural/urban digital divide.  Internet-service providers (ISP) face massive entry costs in rural areas with low-population density.  This barrier to entry greatly inhibits competition and limits the ability of ISPs to provide adequate high-speed coverage.  In 2015, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) redefined broadband access as a minimum connection of 25/megabytes-per-second download speed, and reported in 2016 that 39 percent of rural areas lack this minimum criteria for sufficient internet access. 

On Wednesday, Representative Marsh Blackburn (R-Tennessee), Chairwoman of the House Energy and Commerce Subcommittee on Communications and Technology, announced that she is drafting a bill to address the challenges broadband providers face when expanding their services in rural areas.  Representative Blackburn indicated that the Energy and Commerce Committee will take up her draft bill after they’ve completed a two-year reauthorization of the FCC and will likely serve as House GOP alternative to a Senate-passed proposal, S. 19 the “MOBILE NOW” Act, introduced by Commerce, Science, and Transportation Chair John Thune (R-South Dakota).   Representative Blackburn has not released any details on the House plan but the Senate’s effort would authorize the FCC and National Telecommunications and Information Administration to increase spectrum availability for 5G wireless broadband and reduce red-tape for broadband infrastructure projects.