On Senate Floor, Klobuchar Highlights Need to Keep Families Connected During the Pandemic and Invest in Broadband

Senator Klobuchar speaks about the need for broadband…

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On the Senate Floor, U.S. Senator Amy Klobuchar (D-MN) spoke about the impact that the lack of access to broadband is having on Americans during the coronavirus pandemic– particularly students and low-income families – and the critical need to bring high-speed internet to every family, regardless of their zip code. 

“Access to broadband, as I just noted, has become more critical now than ever as schools and workplaces are closed in an effort to limit the spread of the coronavirus where teachers, many with pre-existing conditions simply cannot put themselves at risk. And where we know going forward that we will continue to have a substantial number of kids learning remotely. As I said, even before the pandemic one study found that about 42 million Americans nationwide lacked access to broadband, reports have also found that only 66 percent of black households, 61 percent of Latino households, and 63 percent of rural households have broadband at home of the quality that would allow them to work and to conduct their business and to participate in school and telecommuting and health care…,”Klobuchar said in her remarks.

“In rural areas of my state, about 16 percent of households lack access to broadband even at baseline speeds. That means we have one hundred forty four thousand households that don’t have access to the Internet. One of the saddest stories I remember was a household on one of our tribal areas that got and paid for their own high speed Internet and the parents looked out the window and saw all these kids in their lawn. And that’s because they were trying to get that access to the internet at that one household to be able to do their homework. That was a story from Leech Lake Reservation…”

I’ve always believed that when we invest in broadband, we invest in opportunity for every American. If we could bring electricity to everyone’s home in the smallest farms, in the middle of areas with very little population, we can do this in the modern era. Otherwise we are going to continue to have — Have and Have Nots. It shouldn’t depend on your zip code, whether or not your kid can learn to read. It shouldn’t depend on where your zip code is to figure out what their homework is the next day. All Americans should have access to high speed internet. This pandemic has put a big magnifying glass on what was a problem for many, many years and it’s time to act now.”

As a member of the Senate Commerce Committee and co-chair of the bipartisan Senate Broadband Caucus, Klobuchar has long championed closing the digital divide and expanding access to the internet. 

In July, Klobuchar introduced TheAccessible, Affordable Internet for All Actwith Senators Brian Schatz (D-HI), Mark Warner (D-VA), Ed Markey (D-MA), Cory Booker (D-NJ), Kamala Harris (D-CA), Elizabeth Warren (D-MA), Catherine Cortez Masto (D-NV), and Jacky Rosen (D-NV) following introduction in the House of Representatives by Majority Whip James Clyburn and the Rural Broadband Task Force. The bill will invest $100 billion to build high-speed broadband infrastructure in unserved and underserved communities to close the digital divide and connect Americans to ensure they have increased access to education, health care, and business opportunities. The bill passed the House as part of the House comprehensive infrastructure package in July. 

In May, Klobuchar and Senators Mazie Hirono (D-HI), Gary Peters (D-MI), and Rosen introduced theSupporting Connectivity for Higher Education Students in Need Actto help ensure that college and university students with the greatest financial needs can access high-speed internet during the coronavirus pandemic. The bill would appropriate $1 billion to establish an Emergency Higher Education Connectivity fund at the National Telecommunications Information Administration to help ensure that college and university students at historically Black colleges and universities, Tribal colleges and universities, Hispanic-serving institutions, and other minority-serving institutions, as well as rural-serving institutions, have adequate home internet connectivity during the coronavirus pandemic. The bill provides federal support for these colleges and universities to directly help students in need pay for at-home internet connections and equipment such as routers, modems, Wi-Fi hotspots, laptops, tablets, and internet-enabled devices to students. 

The legislation has gained support from over 60 organizations and in a letter released by Higher Learning Advocates and 59 partner organizations, the group called on Congress to include the Supporting Connectivity for Higher Education Students in Need Act in the next relief package.  

In March, Klobuchar and Senator Kevin Cramer (R-ND) introduced bipartisan legislation to sustain rural broadband connectivity during the coronavirus pandemic. TheKeeping Critical Connections Act would appropriate $2 billion for a temporary Keeping Critical Connections fund at the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) to help small broadband providers sustain internet services and upgrades for students and low-income families during the pandemic.

In April, Klobuchar and Cramer and Representatives Peter Welch and Roger Marshall led a bipartisan, bicameral letter urging Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi, Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, and House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy to include dedicated funding to help small broadband providers sustain internet services and upgrades for students and low-income families in any future legislation in response to the pandemic.

Also, in March, Klobuchar and Senators Roger Wicker (R-MS), Peters, and John Thune’s (R-SD) bipartisan legislation to improve the FCC’s broadband coverage maps was signed into law. The Broadband Deployment Accuracy and Technological Availability (DATA) Act would require the FCC to collect more granular data from fixed, wireless, and satellite broadband providers, strengthen the accuracy of data from mobile broadband providers, consider a process to ensure data is reliable, and create a process for state, local, and Tribal governments to challenge the FCC maps’ accuracy.

Klobuchar has also urged the FCC to take action to ensure students have access to the internet so they can continue learning while schools are closed during the pandemic. In March, Klobuchar led a letter with Senators Peters and Jon Tester (D-MT) urging the FCC to ensure that all K-12 students have internet access and can continue learning from home as schools nationwide are closed in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. The letter also asked the FCC to create a searchable web portal to help consumers locate existing resources to help them connect to the internet.

In April, Klobucharjoined a letter led by Senator Markey with 32 Democratic Senators to Senate Majority Leader McConnell, House Speaker Pelosi, Senate Minority Leader Schumer, and House Minority Leader McCarthy expressing disappointment in the lack of broadband funding for distance learning in the third coronavirus relief package and urging them to include at least $2 billion for E-rate funding for schools and libraries. Klobuchar joined another letter led by Markey with 18 Democratic Senators to Leader McConnell and Commerce Committee Chairman Wicker requesting $2 billion for E-rate funding in the third relief package.

In March, Klobuchar joined a letter led by Senator Chris Van Hollen (D-MD) with 12 other Democratic Senators to Leader McConnell and Leader Schumer urging them to include funding in the third relief package to support expanding digital distance learning—including for devices for children to access the internet and complete their schoolwork online—and closing the homework gap.

Transcript of remarks as delivered below and video available HERE. (or below)

Mr. President, I rise today to talk about a focused subject which is access to broadband. I will say that I know the negotiations between the House and the Senate and the White House are continuing. I think it is very important for the American people that we do this in good faith.

I disagree with my colleague from Texas on a few of the descriptions of the bill that came over from the House, which you know, I think the fact that the bill that was first introduced here in the Senate had only 20 percent of the funding for testing that the House bill had is very concerning. When you look at people waiting to get test results, the fact that there was no money to keep our elections safe, you can just go through line by line some of the issues and the differences in the bill.

But my interest today is not actually emphasizing those differences. It is how can we come together, what are the things we can agree on and the fact that we cannot just pass a Band-Aid for the American people when we have learned that the GDP annualized is going to be down 30 percent when we’ve learned that so many people are losing their homes are being evicted and so many are filing for unemployment that this is the time for action. Broadband, I would say has been an issue especially in rural America for a long time and having once traveled to Iceland and seen how the Icelanders have high speed internet in every corner of their country despite the fact that they are a country of lava and volcanoes and volcanic ash. We can certainly do better.

The problems that I was hearing about for years and we tried to get at slowly but surely with access to internet have become very clear to parents who are simply trying to make sure that their children are being able to participate remotely in school while other kids of other parents who happen to have high speed internet are able to fully participate, others aren’t. Sometimes it’s because of equipment. But oftentimes in my state it’s because of a lack of access to high speed Internet. Stories of one girl in southern Minnesota that I had to take her biology test in a liquor store parking lot. Because that’s where she could get the high speed Internet. 

The doctor, this is pre pandemic who could — yes, access x rays in the hospital, but if late at night he had to help a patient in a remote area he had to go to the McDonald’s parking lot and drive in from his home because he did not have access there. 

I thank Senator Van Hollen for bringing us together this afternoon and his work in organizing this time to focus attention on the pressing education priorities in the relief bill.

Access to broadband, as I just noted, has become more critical now than ever as schools and workplaces are closed in an effort to limit the spread of the coronavirus where teachers, many with pre-existing conditions simply cannot put themselves at risk. And where we know going forward that we will continue to have a substantial number of kids learning remotely. As I said, even before the pandemic one study found that about 42 million Americans nationwide lacked access to broadband, reports have also found that only 66 percent of black households, 61 percent of Latino households, and 63 percent of rural households have broadband at home of the quality that would allow them to work and to conduct their business and to participate in school and telecommuting and health care.

In rural areas of my state, about 16 percent of households lack access to broadband even at baseline speeds. That means we have one hundred forty four thousand households that don’t have access to the Internet. One of the saddest stories I remember was a household on one of our tribal areas that got and paid for their own high speed Internet and the parents looked out the window and saw all these kids in their lawn. And that’s because they were trying to get that access to the internet at that one household to be able to do their homework. That was a story from Leech Lake Reservation. 

Many students have shifted online and will continue distance learning and we need to make sure that all kids can learn. That’s why I led a letter with Senators Peters and Tester urging the FCC to ensure that all K-12 students have access to continue learning from home during the pandemic.  

And following the announcement of the school closing in Minnesota and the remote learning, I worked with Senator Smith to urge the FCC to ensure that Minnesota students have access to high speed internet. I’m grateful for Senator Markey’s leadership in helping close the homework gap and ensuring that students have the connectivity that they need. I was proud to join him in 43 of our Democratic colleagues in the Senate to introduce the Emergency Educational Connections Act to establish a fund at the FCC to help schools and libraries provide Wi-Fi hotspots or other connected devices to students without home Internet access.

This bill, in fact, as I think of the comments of my colleague from Texas, this bill was included in the Heroes Act that was passed by the House and it is incredibly important that we have broadband capabilities in the bill that we passed in the Senate. It’s not just K-12 students who need help to connect to the Internet during the crisis. Colleges and universities across the country have also moved classes online and many low income students relied on campus resources are struggling to continue their education from home and are at serious risk of falling behind.

I know for quite a while the White House was hoping that this would magically go away with false claims of improved situations and false claims of chugging bleach and the like to make it go away. But in fact, I will say the President was accurate a week or two ago in one way when he publicly said this is going to get worse before it gets better.

So the thought that we allow these disparities can continue where those households that don’t have high speed internet are at a complete disadvantage, not just for a month. That might be okay, not just for three months, but for a year and beyond when it comes to education. Kids, little kids, first grade, second grade, when they’re supposed to be learning to read, they cannot be apart from teaching for that long of a time without it having a major impact on their education and it can.

That also includes higher education, not every kid in college or in community college can afford high speed Internet. That’s why I introduced the Supporting Connectivity for Higher Education Students in Need Act in May with Senators Hirono Peters and Rosen. That creates a fund at the National Telecommunications and Information Administration to help ensure that college students with the greatest financial need can access critical Internet services and equipment like laptops and tablets.

Our bill prioritizes historically Black colleges and universities, Tribal colleges and universities, Hispanic serving institutions, and other minority serving institutions as well as rural institutions. As we continue to confront this pandemic, ensuring that students get internet from kindergarten and preschool on through college and the like is really important. 

I’ve spoken with small broadband providers and superintendents across my state who have been working with school districts to connect students to the Internet, going that extra mile to help including providing free Internet services and installing public Wi-Fi hotspots in their community. They’ve helped our kids, but we know we need better long term solutions. That’s why Senator Cramer and I introduced the Keeping Critical Connections Act to create a fund at the FCC to help small broadband providers continue to provide critical Internet services.

It has been my experience after many years in my state that many of these smaller providers on the ground are much quicker and do a better job of keeping their promises and building out as opposed to some of the big telephone companies where maybe they don’t see This as economic to reach these rural areas. I don’t think it’s a surprise because so many of my colleagues have had the same experiences listening to people in rural areas of their state that our bill now has 34 co-sponsors, half Democrats, half Republicans and it would put 2 billion in to work with the small providers to give them the funding that they need to expand immediately out to these areas.

I don’t want to hear another story like the high school student taking her biology exam in the liquor store parking lot simply because she doesn’t have internet. We also need to make sure people know about existing resources that can help them connect to the Internet due to job losses or reductions in income during the pandemic millions of Americans are newly eligible for nutrition benefits and Medicaid and can also get help to connect to the Internet through FCC Lifeline program to help low income people connect, because some of these people have never been low income and because of the pandemic they now are.

According to FCC commissioner Starks, only about 7 million of the 38 million households that were eligible for the Lifeline program were enrolled. That’s why in April, I led a letter with Senator Durbin and Representative Marcia Fudge of Ohio and Anna Eshoo of California, along with 140 members of Congress, urging the FCC to work with the USDA and HHS to ensure that the millions of Americans who are now eligible For SNAP are informed about their eligibility for the FCC’s Lifeline program. As we work to bring high speed Internet to communities across the country, it’s simply critical that we have a clear understanding of where broadband is available.

My bipartisan bill with Chairman Wicker, and Senators Peters and Thune to improve the accuracy of the FCC maps was in fact signed into law in March, not soon enough for the pandemic, but we simply can’t just here ‘Oh hey we have high speed internet in our area.’ Which I know Senator Wicker and Thune heard just like I did. Then in fact you go there and that isn’t true at all. 

That’s why having these updated maps as we look at not just what we’re dealing with today, but look at the day after tomorrow, which is a metaphor for next year when the vaccine starts coming out. When things start going back to a place where people are out and about freely. Well, we’ve got to make sure that if we haven’t expanded to everyone with broadband at that moment that we do it then and to do that we need accurate mapping.

Last bill I wanted to mention is a bill that has passed the House and that is Representative Clyburn’s investment of 100 billion to build high speed broadband infrastructure in underserved areas including rural areas to expand affordable high speed internet to everyone. I am the lead on the Senate version of that bill and given that it has passed, it is part of another piece of legislation. It’s something else we should be looking at as we move forward the next few months.

We all depend on reliable broadband and we must make sure that we get reliable broadband to all. I’ve always believed that when we invest in broadband, we invest in opportunity for every American. If we could bring electricity to everyone’s home in the smallest farms, in the middle of areas with very little population, we can do this in the modern era. Otherwise we are going to continue to have — Have and Have Nots. It shouldn’t depend on your zip code, whether or not your kid can learn to read. It shouldn’t depend on where your zip code is to figure out what their homework is the next day.

It shouldn’t depend on where your zip code is to find out if you’re going to be able to virtually visit your mom and dad in a senior center because some places will have the high speed access that will allow them to do that and others won’t. It shouldn’t depend on your zip code to figure out if you can actually have your doctor show you an x ray instead of going in to a medical setting that maybe you don’t feel comfortable going into. 

All Americans should have access to high speed internet. This pandemic has put a big magnifying glass on what was a problem for many, many years and it’s time to act now. 

Thank you, Mr. President. I yield the floor and I again thank Senator Van Hollen for calling us together and thank Senator Hassan for her great leadership in this area in the state of New Hampshire.

This entry was posted in Conferences, Funding, Policy and tagged by Ann Treacy. Bookmark the permalink.

About Ann Treacy

Librarian who follows rural broadband in MN and good uses of new technology (blandinonbroadband.org), hosts a radio show on MN music (mostlyminnesota.com), supports people experiencing homelessness in Minnesota (elimstrongtowershelters.org) and helps with social justice issues through Women’s March MN.

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