Despite a hyper-politicized climate that continues to yield many a stalemate in Congress, bipartisan consensus appears to be emerging yet again, on the issue of broadband infrastructure. Senators John Thune (R-SD), Chairman of the U.S. Senate Commerce, Science, and Transportation Committee, and Brian Schatz (D-HI), Ranking Member of the Subcommittee on Communications, Technology, Innovation and the Internet, are advancing legislation to streamline the process of wireless infrastructure deployment.
The Thune-Schatz bill discussion draft provides a framework for state and local governments to expedite siting and permitting processes for the construction of new wireless networks and remove barriers to entry for providers of such services. While the bill is still in its early stages, its passage could prove invaluable to consumers of color who over-index in the use of mobile and wireless services.
According to the Pew Research Center, 94% of African Americans and 98% of Hispanics own a cellphone, including smartphone devices. What’s more, African Americans and Hispanics tend to be more smartphone dependent than their white counterparts, relying on their mobile devices to provide critical access to the Internet and the array of products, services, and applications it supports. Beyond consumer trends, recent research from the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies finds that Black and Latino business owners increasingly rely on mobile technologies to promote their businesses, engage in e-commerce, engage with customers via social media, monetize their businesses, and bank online.
More so than the overall U.S. population, people of color increasingly rely on mobile technologies, making the emergence of next-generation 5G wireless, the viability of connected “smart” communities, and the Internet of Things of serious importance to these communities across the country. The proposed Thune-Schatz legislation makes the rollout of 5G networks easier by prohibiting access restrictions to poles, rights-of-way, or other government facilities, barring certain exceptions. It also proposes a shot-clock for decision-making on buildout requests and prohibits actions by states and localities that create unnecessary barriers to entry.
At the same time, the proposed legislation preserves the authority of state and local policymakers to charge fees to access various properties necessary for wireless deployment, provided such rates are fair, reasonable, competitively and technologically neutral, and publicly disclosed. State and local authorities would also maintain authority to enforce zoning and land use provisions, as well as manage access to their poles, rights-of-way, and government-owned facilities.
Additionally, the proposed bill would require that the Government Accountability Office to study challenges associated with broadband deployment on tribal lands, that state and local governments consult with telecommunications providers for “Dig Once” opportunities, and ensure a level playing field for cable franchises currently making use of government facilities and resources.
At a time when mobile technologies and networks are reaching record levels of demand, especially among people of color, this proposed legislation would go a long way toward ensuring that broadband connectivity reaches all people. As eloquently articulated in a white paper by the National Black Caucus of State Legislators entitled Next Generation Wireless Networks for Cities and Communities of Color: The Path Forward, “this infrastructure will serve as the foundation for smart cities and the internet of things that will enable disruptive innovation in civic technology, transportation, public safety, government operations, social service delivery, and nearly every other aspect of modern urban life.” Time will tell what lies ahead for the proposed Thune-Schatz legislation, but one thing is for sure: increasing access to cutting-edge technologies, and the next-generation wireless networks they will depend on, will truly benefit communities of color.