Bennet Highlights Broadband Provisions in Bipartisan Infrastructure Law, Modeled On His BRIDGE Act with Senators Portman and King
Denver — Yesterday, at the annual National Association of Telecommunications Officers and Advisors (NATOA) conference in Denver, Colorado U.S. Senator Michael Bennet highlighted the progress Congress has made to expand access to high-speed, affordable broadband and close the digital divide. Last year, Bennet introduced the bipartisan Broadband Reform and Investment to Drive Growth in the Economy (BRIDGE) Act with U.S. Senators Rob Portman (R-Ohio) and Angus King (I-Maine), which was incorporated into the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law to make the single largest investment in broadband in history.
“I am convinced that high-speed broadband is as important to America’s competitiveness today as rural electrification was in the 1930s, or the interstate highway system was in the 1950s,” said Bennet in his remarks. “It would be inconceivable to imagine our country today if our parents and grandparents hadn’t made those investments for our benefit. And if we rise to the moment, our kids and grandkids are going to look back 30 years from now, or 60 years from now, and say the same thing about our work to ensure that every American, no matter where they live, has access to affordable, high-speed broadband.”
At the conference, Bennet accepted the Jane E. Lawton Commemorative Award from NATOA for his efforts to ensure that broadband is accessible and affordable for every American.
“NATOA and our members are grateful for Senator Bennet's national leadership on addressing broadband inequality. His efforts to ensure that broadband is accessible and affordable for every American will make a significant impact on the day-to-day lives of millions of Americans. The broadband provisions of the bipartisan Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act, which were derived from his BRIDGE Act, will allow states and local governments to ensure every resident is able to enjoy the benefits of broadband services. We are also grateful for the Senator's strong advocacy to improve the broadband services, which contributed to the USDA increasing the minimum speeds and standards for its ReConnect program, and his consistent efforts to improve the FCC’s E-Rate program,” said NATOA President Michael Russo.
Bennet has helped lead the effort to bridge America’s digital divide in Congress. In addition to writing the BRIDGE Act, in March 2021, Bennet, alongside Senators King, Portman, and Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.) urged the Biden Administration to establish a consistent, 21st-century definition of broadband to reflect modern demands of families, farms, and businesses. Last month, Bennet and the senators welcomed the FCC’s proposal to redefine broadband connections in line with what the senators called for as 100 megabits (Mbps) per second or faster for download speeds. During the pandemic, Bennet also consistently called for more funding and flexibility for the FCC’s E-Rate program to connect low-income students online and helped secure more than $7 billion to close the digital divide for students nationwide in the American Rescue Plan.
Bennet’s full remarks are available below.
Thank you. I’m so pleased to win this award. I feel grateful for the recognition because really it belongs to Colorado, which is where we wrote the BRIDGE Act because of the exceptional leadership of communities across our state who are figuring out how to move the country into the future. So I am particularly grateful to win this award on my home turf and congratulations to the home team for also winning their award.
Thank you to Rick and Nancy and thank you to NATOA for having us here today.
I want to start by thanking you for your leadership during a really difficult two years for our state, and for the country. It’s been a really difficult time and this conference is proof that maybe we are finally getting back to normal.
So in that spirit, let me say welcome to Colorado and those of you from Colorado we are delighted that you are here.
There were some upsides to COVID for me because there was a certain period of time when my now seventeen year old daughter couldn’t really leave the house. She’s our third daughter and I would go in in the afternoon because I was working in the other end of the house, she was working in her room, and I’d go open the door and she’d say, “What are you doing in here? Get out of here! I’m social distancing. I'm doing what the governor is telling me to do.” She’s very happy to be back at school. And I’m very happy to be here with all of you.
And when you think about it, it should never have taken a pandemic to put broadband at the top of Washington’s agenda.
Because I’ve been hearing about broadband since I was a school superintendent, certainly, and off and on for the 13 years that I have been in the Senate.
No matter where I’ve gone in the state— whether it’s on the Front Range, the Eastern Plains of Colorado, or the West Slope— broadband has come up again and again and again.
And if I were to summarize what people have told me over the past 13 years, it’s very easy to do:
Broadband was too slow or too expensive for their family, farm, or small business— even though it was becoming more central to their lives every single month, every single day.
And that was before the pandemic.
Once the pandemic hit, we all saw what happened:
Families struggling to work remotely and going to school on the same, outdated network.
Businesses struggling to transition to telework.
And most offensive to me was the idea that kids in poor communities in Colorado, many of them rural communities in our state, were having to go to Wal-Mart parking lots to do their homework because they had no broadband at home.
And because my job, before I was in this job, was to superintend a school, it seemed obvious to me— it’s always seemed obvious to me— that when you got one set of kids with access to the internet because of resources at home and you have another set of kids that don’t have access to the internet because they don't have resources at home, in the 21st century that is identical to accepting a school system in America where some kids have access to textbooks and other kids have no access to textbooks.
There have been times in this country’s history when we’ve tolerated that set of inequality for our children. Those are not the moments of which I am most proud, and we need to make sure that we address it.
So we came through COVID, and during COVID I was thinking how unconscionable it was that we had put kids in this position. And of course it wasn’t accidental. I mean, this is the result of Washington’s underinvestment year after year after year.
And if there’s any silver lining at all to what we’ve just been through, it’s that it created a bipartisan consensus that we could no longer accept the status quo.
It fed a renewed sense of urgency, finally, to bridge America’s digital divide.
And so a few months into the pandemic, I introduced the BRIDGE Act -- a bill I wrote, as I said, on the ground in Colorado working with people here, notwithstanding the lack of constructive federal policy in this area, who are figuring out how to deliver high-speed broadband to their constituents at an affordable price.
And I should say that a big help on that bill was NATOA’s past president Ken Fellman, the past Mayor of Arvada, Colorado, who has been a leader on telecommunications since before he was Mayor of Arvada, and he was enormously helpful, as well as local governments across the state from Longmont to the Delta-Montrose’s Electric Association on the Western Slope of Colorado.
And just for a reminder, the BRIDGE Act did essentially three things.
First, it put, for the first time, states and local communities in the driver’s seat— not Washington, DC— on the theory that you better understand the needs on the ground and have the greatest incentive to spend the funds effectively.
Another way of thinking about that is having the greatest incentive not to waste money or spend the money ineffectively, or not know what you’re doing, which we’ve seen with the $50 billion of telecom money that Washington sent to the largest telecom companies in the country who then visibly didn’t deliver the broadband to rural America or the underserved communities. So the first was getting the actors right.
Second, the bill preempted state laws that restrict municipal broadband, including S.B. 152 right here in Colorado. We couldn’t get that part of it done in the [infrastructure law], but I’m hopeful that we’re going to do it going forward and welcome your partnership.
We included that provision by the way because we understood what everyone here knows intuitively– communities need choice. They need competition. And when the private market won’t provide the quality broadband people need, local governments should have the freedom to offer it directly.
And this isn’t speculation when it comes to my state, and I’m sure to yours. Here in Colorado, over 100 communities have voted to opt out of S.B. 152, and communities like Longmont now offer some of the fastest broadband in the country.
Which brings me to the third point of the BRIDGE Act. We significantly raised the minimum standards for new broadband projects. We quadrupled the minimum download speed from 25 megabits per second to 100.
We also said that states have to prioritize even faster, gigabit networks that can meet our needs in the 21st century, and so we wouldn’t have to rebuild those networks in five or ten years.
This all may sound totally obvious to the people in this room, or it may sound like common sense to all of you, but it’s exactly the opposite of what Washington’s policies have been for the last 40 years.
We’ve frittered away billions of dollars, as I said, to subsidize networks that were outdated almost as soon as they were completed. And then what we did was hand out more subsidies to do it all over again. It wasted a lot of money and left a lot of communities in Colorado and the West and our country behind.
So that’s what I heard over and over and over again, especially in rural areas. And it’s why the BRIDGE Act insisted on the highest broadband standards no matter where you live.
We put the bill out over two years ago, and last summer we reintroduced it with Senator Rob Portman, my friend who’s a Republican from Ohio, Senator Angus King, who’s an independent from Maine. I’m campaigning now, and I love to tell the story of how this wasn't just a bipartisan bill, it was a tripartisan bill in the US Senate.
And when the bipartisan infrastructure proposal finally came together, the three of us worked very hard to add the BRIDGE Act to the final bill.
And now, the $42.5 billion in broadband funding going to states through the BEAD program comes almost entirely from the bill that I wrote with many of you in Colorado.
And unfortunately, we didn’t succeed, as I said, in getting the municipal broadband language in the bill, but we insisted that local governments have a seat at the table and were eligible for the funding.
This was a tough fight for reasons that I am happy to describe if anyone is interested, but now the truly hard work now falls on everybody here to do the work and seize this historic opportunity for Colorado and communities all across this country.
Because this is a once-in-a-lifetime investment. We are not going to see this again.
And I am convinced that high-speed broadband is as important to America’s competitiveness today as rural electrification was in the 1930s, or the interstate highway was in the 1950s.
It would be inconceivable to imagine our country today if our parents and grandparents hadn’t made those investments for our benefit.
And if we rise to the moment, our kids and grandkids are going to look back 30 years from now, or 60 years from now, and say the same thing about our work to ensure that every American, no matter where they live, has access to affordable, high-speed broadband.
So thank you again for having me. Thank you NATOA for embracing Colorado with your presence. We’ll take you back anytime.I am deeply grateful for this award, and for the leadership of everybody in this room. Thank you.