Episode 14

Expanding Rural Broadband Through The EXTEND Act

December 14, 2020

Episode Summary

Rep. Robert Aderholt has introduced the EXTEND Act to support rural broadband development. The act would give states more time and flexibility to use coronavirus relief funding to build broadband networks.

Show Notes

Transcripts have been lightly edited for clarity and readability.

 

Stephen Smith: Thanks for listening in today. As I record this, it’s December 10th, and the United States Congress is trying to release another coronavirus relief package. My guest today is hoping to attach a bill to that package that will address a problem with an earlier relief effort that was known as the CARES Act. Congressman Robert Aderholt, who represents Alabama’s 4th congressional district, has introduced a bill called the EXTEND Act. That seeks to allow states to use CARES Act dollars to build permanent rural broadband networks. In this conversation, we also dive into some rural broadband issues, such as USDA’s ReConnect program that Congressman Aderholt was instrumental in getting set up. So join us now for this timely conversation with Congressman Robert Aderholt.

Stephen Smith: Well, thank you so much, Congressman Robert Aderholt, for joining us today on the Rural Broadband Today podcast.

Congressman Aderholt: Well, it’s good to be with you today, and thanks for having me on to talk about an issue that I think is near and dear to everyone’s heart: broadband and how really it has impacted our lives, especially during COVID.

Stephen Smith: Absolutely. Well, one of the reasons we wanted to talk with you today is that you certainly have been a champion of rural broadband in Congress, and a great evidence of that is a bill you’ve just recently introduced called the EXTEND Act. It stands for “Enabling Extra Time to Extend Network Development.” I thought that was a great title. Won’t you walk our listeners through what that bill seeks to accomplish?

Congressman Aderholt: Sure, I’d be happy to. And let me, first of all, just start back and say that broadband has been an issue that, as you mentioned, that I’ve worked on for quite some time. And it really goes back to working when I was chairing the AG Appropriations Committee in the House of Representatives. And as most people think about the AG bill or the AG appropriations, we fund the Department of Agriculture; you don’t necessarily think of technology in the sense you think of broadband. But there is a part of the USDA that is dedicated to rural development. And this was something that we set up the ReConnect program and funded the ReConnect program to start it out in 2018 of $600 million dollars under the Consolidated Appropriations Act. And this was a new USDA program that would expand broadband connectivity. Now, one thing that was very important for this was that these grants and these loans that will go into areas were not going just to broadband in general, but to areas that were rural and areas that were very little or no coverage. So that was one of the things that was important was that it goes to areas that were not already covered. As you know, the larger cities for quite some time have had pretty good access to broadband Internet. It’s really the rural parts of America that have really been the real problem. And serving in that role as the Chair of the AG Appropriations Committee, it gave me a chance to work on something for all 50 states that would help every part of the country, but especially targeted at those areas that either had very little or that had no coverage of broadband Internet service.

Congressman Aderholt: But back in 2018 was one that we get that started, and since that time, more money has been added into it. As I mentioned, $600 million was added initially, and then we’re well over a billion dollars that has been put into that program. But one of the things that we’ll bring up today — talking about more into the EXTEND Act — of course, we found out that even a billion dollars sounds like a lot of money — and it is a lot of money — but when you’re talking about the entire United States and building broadband networks for rural areas, it’s a big undertaking. And a billion dollars compared to what is involved in that is not a lot of money. So we had to look for other areas. And of course, there’s been other bills that have looked to try to put money for building up broadband.

Congressman Aderholt: And one of the things during the CARES Act — which was the first piece of the real big legislation that went toward trying to help with the situation regarding COVID and its impact that it had back in the spring — was to try to make sure that broadband was an Internet coverage for areas because kids could no longer go to school. The people could no longer go to the doctor. People could no longer go to the hospitals to be checked out. So they had to depend on connecting with their doctor via the Internet. The students had to connect to their teachers via the Internet and have their classroom in their homes. So that was quite a bit of money that was put in; several hundred million were put in the money in the CARES Act. The problem was the way that the CARES Act was worded. And this is where the EXTEND Act really comes into play. The CARES Act was worded in such a way initially that it was basically during this COVID crisis. And the problem is broadband Internet is one of those things that will continue to be a problem well beyond when the COVID crisis is over. So a lot of the money that was accessed out there was for, you know, it was termed in the CARES Act as temporary. But when you put in broadband, it’s permanent. It’s not something that’s temporary. It’s something that you hope is not only going to serve the time during COVID and the need there, but well beyond it. So a lot of states were reluctant to use the money because they’re saying we’re building this infrastructure that is going to be permanent. It’s not going to be just a temporary situation. So therefore, we wanted to make sure that the money would not have any strings attached so that the state governments that got this money would be on the hook to saying, oh, now you’ve got to pay this money back, because really you’ve used it for a permanent structure of broadband. But we felt like that money needed to be used for broadband coverage, whether it was going to be on a temporary basis for it, on a permanent basis or whatever the situation needed for each particular state and each locality. So that’s basically the bottom line of this EXTEND Act was to make sure that the build up of broadband could be used in however the states felt like it needed to be used, and so they wouldn’t be caught up in any kind of lawsuit later on where the federal government or any other entity would come back and try to sue them for the way that they used it, as long as it was being used to further the availability of broadband, especially in rural areas.

Stephen Smith: Ok, so it really gives the states more time and more flexibility in how they use those funds.

Congressman Aderholt: Yeah, because the COVID language, of course, it expires after a certain amount of time after the end of the year. So a lot of these. But when you build broadband, you don’t do it for a temporary basis. You do it for a permanent basis. So that’s where a lot of these states were needing help trying to secure broadband, just get it out there to cover rural parts of their states. And we want to make sure that they are not having strings attached and say, well, this is not just temporary. This is going to be well along into the future, which was a great thing. So this just gave the flexibility for the states to use that money as — again, it was not for anything. It was still for broadband. It is still for the same issue. But just give them enough leeway in the language that they could use for the how they thought best, as long as they’re furthering the broadband cause.

Stephen Smith: Well, it’s certainly a busy time in Congress right now, to say the least, and you had a new relief package you’re working on and holiday break coming up. How hopeful are you that the EXTEND Act is going to get passed any time soon? And sort of what’s the timetable for that?

Congressman Aderholt: Well, the EXTEND Act is a bill that, of course, is a standalone bill. I’m introducing it with my colleague from Ohio. And, we think, well, Ohio, we don’t necessarily think of rural, but there’s parts of Ohio that are just as rural as Alabama. And so he is the congressman for one of the congressional districts in Ohio. And I have found that almost every state has a problem with rural connectivity, with broadband. It’s not just Alabama or Mississippi or Tennessee or Georgia. You go out west, it’s the same problem as well. So I am happy that my colleagues that serve on the Commerce Committee, that deal with a lot of these issues directly when it comes to technology issues and commerce that introduced this with him. Now, obviously, when this Congress is over, this Congress ends when the new Congress begins, and that’ll be on January the 3rd of 2021, which is just really a few weeks away. So our best hope is to try to get this piece of legislation that it can be incorporated into the stimulus bill. That is being worked on currently in Congress to try to see if it can be added in instead of doing a separate bill that could be meshed in with the COVID Relief Act, which is currently under discussion and currently under negotiations as we speak.

Stephen Smith: Ok, that brings some real clarity to that, it sounds like.

Congressman Aderholt: Well, it would be more definite because obviously trying to get a bill through Congress is, as you know, the old saying goes, “it’s like trying to get an act of Congress.” And to try to get a bill through Congress is not an easy thing. So while it’s a great idea, sometimes it has to go through a committee and hearings and things like that. And obviously, that’s the way we did it because that’s the appropriate way to do it. But if you can sometimes get these bills and attach them to another vehicle that is moving quickly, the language of that bill, then that’s a way to get it moving in an expedited manner. And that’s what our goal is. I talked to Senator Wicker on the Senate side, who is the senior senator from Mississippi just a few days ago, and asked him to look at this to see if they can incorporate it in maybe something that is going over in the Senate and some bills that are moving quickly over there. Because obviously, as I say, to pass a bill from start to scratch — and we just introduced this bill just in the last several weeks. So this is, for a bill to go from being introduced to being passed into law in just a matter of weeks is very, very, very unusual. So that’s why we’re looking at different avenues to try to get this language so that states can have that flexibility to use that money to, like I said at the end of the day, make sure that broadband is a top priority.

Stephen Smith: Why is rural broadband such an important issue for you? What have you heard through the years from your constituents about the need for better broadband in rural America?

Congressman Aderholt: Well, it really goes back to, I think really what it is — I was seeing, and not only myself, but I think most when you start to look at broadband connectivity, you saw really two Americas. You saw the haves and the have nots. You saw the larger cities, the more urban areas had, and especially the school kids that lived in those areas, had great connectivity. The very fast Internet — they could download. They could get on the Internet very quickly and maneuver around. But not kids or schoolchildren, and not only that, but individuals and adults, were sort of always a step behind in rural areas. And so there were really two Americas that, well, we’re seeing those that had great broadband coverage now as it did. And what it boils down to, it didn’t really depend on necessarily the state or the economic income so much, it was where you lived and whether you had access to it. And the bottom line is a lot of the companies that go out and do broadband and lay the ground with the wires for broadband, it’s much more economically profitable to put it in larger cities. When you can use a mile of broadband and get maybe thousands of homes hooked up on one mile of a broadband network, or as you go into a rural part of Alabama, you go a mile, and you might have two houses.

Congressman Aderholt: So obviously, it’s going to be much more lucrative for a company that deals with broadband to go to areas where there are thousands of houses within a mile radius, at least hundreds of houses, if not thousands, especially if you get into apartment buildings and things like that. So that’s why you had the rural areas being left behind. So this was a program to incentivize companies to come in and to work with, whether it be electric co-ops or telephone co-ops or whatever the case may be, and saying we want to be an incentive for you to put broadband into these rural areas. And that’s what really the bottom line of what this was all about. So see, in these two Americas, as I described it, was trying to make us back all of one America. Because if you go back, you go back — my dad, he’s 85 years old and in good health. And he was probably 12 years old before they had electricity at their house. And back in the 1930s and the 1940s in rural Alabama people, there were a lot of people that didn’t have electricity. Again, in the cities you had electricity, and that was not unusual. But you go outside to rural parts of Alabama or Georgia, Mississippi or any other state, and no one had electricity. Or it was very rare for anyone to have electricity.

Congressman Aderholt: So I equate that to sort of where we are today. And could you imagine today trying to run a business and not have electricity? In the same way it is really today with the way that we are as an economy, that we depend on the global economy in the way that our economics works today. If you’re not on the Internet, then really you’re left behind because so much of it is dealing with the Internet and having connectivity, broadband, and it all goes hand in hand. So I think that’s really where it is today. It’s trying to even have a business and not have Internet coverage, at least something that’s a little bit faster — you want something quite a bit faster than dial-up. Most people remember the old dial-up service that was so slow in the early days. But some people, that’s about what they have today. And so that’s why we’re trying to say that broadband is like electricity was back into the 20s, 30s, and 40s in America. And we want to make sure that as we get today. Most Americans, no matter whether they live in a rural area, whether they live in a downtown, a major city, they have electricity. And so hopefully that’s what we’ll be with broadband.

Stephen Smith: Well, there are certainly some exciting rural broadband projects underway all across the country, but your district, Congressman in particular, that stretches across several counties in north Alabama seems to be a hotbed of broadband activity. Now, you must be encouraged by the progress that you’re seeing made back home, particularly with electric cooperatives and with the traditional telephone broadband cooperatives that you see doing a lot of big projects here.

Congressman Aderholt: Well, these co-ops have really stepped up to the plate. They were really putting into place — going back to putting electricity in these rural areas. These co-ops were set up because the larger companies that provided electricity, it was not as lucrative for them to run electric wire for electricity when you could have it take maybe several miles to one house on electricity to get hooked up to electricity. Whereas you could go into town, and you could have hundreds of houses on one line. So same concept goes back to this, that these electrical co-ops and telephone co-ops for rural areas are coming in now and taking advantage of these programs that we talked about, that I talked about going back to rural development back in 2018 so that this money was going for these these incentives, for these companies to and like these co-ops to tap into this funding and say, you know, it’s going to cost extra for us to run this extra fiber in order to get broadband. But if we have some help, then we can do it. We had an incentive to do it. And that’s what the purpose of this was, was all about.

Stephen Smith: Circling back to the to the EXTEND Act and the process that you referred to, that, you know, this sort of thing takes a while to work through Congress. You had actually, I believe it was in August, that you had sent a letter to the Senate and House leadership, basically asking them to consider doing what your EXTEND Act now does. So you’ve been thinking about this for quite some time.

Congressman Aderholt: Yeah, this is something that we had asked the leadership to move on this when they moved forward on trying to do something with the COVID legislation, because we were seeing that states were having the questions like, well, we really want to do something with broadband, and the funding monies are available for us to do this. But if we put the money into laying broadband, then this is going to be something that’s going to be really on a permanent nature as opposed to on a temporary basis, and this is going to be well beyond COVID. So can we spend this money for those particular purposes? And that’s why we want to make sure there’s no question, there’s no lawsuits that will come out of this where states then have to come back and say, hey, you’ve got to give the federal money [back]. You used this for broadband that’s going to be a help for many years in the future. So we tried several avenues working through, asking leadership just to go ahead and move on this. Then we’ve worked on the legislation, and now we’re trying to expedite that legislation by, as I say, try to get it on a vehicle or a bill, so to speak, that is already moving. And obviously something that deals with the COVID relief stimulus package is a good place to put it. You know, whether that will come to fruition, it’s hard to say because there’s so many moving pieces. But whether it is or not, we will, I feel sure, we’ll introduce this legislation after the first year, after January 3rd, when the new Congress starts, and we’ll continue to work on it.

Stephen Smith: Well, one thing in particular I noticed about that letter was that in this particularly divisive time that we see in Washington, your letter had signatures from both parties. Even joining you in leading that effort was Congressman Peter Welch, Democrat from Vermont. You seem to have an ability to work across the aisle and to build consensus. What would you say your approach is to seeking common ground that allows you to be so effective in bringing Republicans and Democrats to the table on such important issues?

Congressman Aderholt: Yeah, well, you raise a very good question, because I think it really hit home with me. Going back to when I was talking about in about 2018, when I chaired the subcommittee of Appropriations, one of the committee members on the Democrat side was from the state of Wisconsin, and he was from the Madison, Wisconsin area, which is — and he is probably…we are diametrically opposed on most issues. Usually if I vote yes, he votes no. And if I vote no, he votes yes. He comes from a very, very liberal district. I come over from a very, very conservative district. And so his area is the University of Wisconsin and, you know, just like I said, it’s a very liberal part of America. But one thing that he was on while we were on the committee, he was talking about the need for broadband in Wisconsin. And so here it was, a conservative Republican from Alabama and a liberal member of Congress from Wisconsin, but we were both talking about how important this issue was. So this issue really goes beyond Democrats or Republicans. This is an issue that impacts people whatever their political leanings, wherever they are.

Congressman Aderholt: You know, and of course, he and I have had many discussions. And even where he lives in Wisconsin, he has a very poor Internet connection. And so, I’m thinking that if you live outside of the South, then you probably live in a larger city, but that’s not the case. Most members of Congress I’ve found out — or I say most of them, it seems like a very large percentage that I talk to don’t live in large cities. They live in smaller towns and smaller communities across the country. And so it is one of those issues that just transcends both Democrats and Republicans. And, you know, it’s great to be able to, especially in a hyper-political activity that we’re living in Washington right now, to be able to work on the issues that Democrats and Republicans can come together on. And, you know, the Internet and broadband is not Democrat or Republican. It’s just there. It’s like electricity. It’s, like I said, there’s so many comparisons that I go back to the way it was in the 1930s and the 40s in rural America. It was not Democrat or Republican, but people needed electricity.

Stephen Smith: Well, said. You know, we hear some people talk about limited government, keeping the federal government out of our lives, but you really balance that with a belief that you state so well on your website. It says that the federal government serves a critical role in assisting state and local projects regarding economic development. Now, someone who has the privilege of living in your district, I’ve certainly witnessed your commitment to leveraging federal dollars and helping our communities help themselves. Talk to us about why you think working together at federal, state and local levels is so effective in improving quality of life in our communities.

Congressman Aderholt: Well, you raise a very, very important issue when you talk about the role of the federal government and where that role is. Obviously in a perfect world, we won’t, at least that’s my opinion. I know people have different opinions on this to have a smaller federal government influence whereas you let the state and local governments make most of the decisions, and you don’t want the federal government having its hand in every aspect of life. Now, when you come to an area, when you’re talking about economic development, I think it’s so different. And I’ve learned this since I’ve been in Congress. I’ve learned this even more. So you have much more advantages when you’re in larger cities and in areas that have a larger population base for economic development. They have the tax dollars. They have the money to be able to do programs and to move things that these smaller cities, smaller towns and rural areas and small counties that have a very, very limited budget just do not have the money to do. And it’s not where the federal government comes as a handout for these areas and say, we’re just going to give you all this. But if we can find a way to incentivize to say we want to help you start doing some economic development in your area, and we know that the community, the town, the county, whatever, doesn’t have a way to incentivize to try to get this going. But we see that we can be a helping hand from the federal government to try to get this started. And it’s sort of like the old saying is you give a man a fish and he eats, but you teach a man to fish, and he eats for a lifetime. And it sort of relates to this when you try to help these communities with economic development. And I really put broadband in that area as well, because there is no way — in an ideal situation, you would love to have a company come in and say, hey, we’re going to provide these services, and then our customers will pay us for it. Well, you go to the broadband issue and these companies, they all want to locate in the larger cities where there’s hundreds and hundreds of houses within a mile or two radius.

Congressman Aderholt: You go to a rural area, and there’s a handful of houses in a mile or two radius. They’re just not going to go to those areas. And I see that’s where the federal government can come in and help. Now, ideally, it would be great if the state can do this, but the state of Alabama is like many states, they’re on a limited budget, not able to do so. And so trying to find ways for economic development and trying to help where the private sector is just not going to step up to the plate, I think is an ideal situation. This broadband issue is one of those where, number one, it helps economic development, as you mentioned earlier. And number two, it also is where private companies, private enterprises are not going to put up any money because it’s the bottom line. It’s just not as lucrative to help out. But yet, at the same time, the people who live in those areas, we want to make sure they have electricity. We want to make sure that they have broadband and have those conveniences that people that live in urban areas already have.

Stephen Smith: Absolutely. And in closing, I would like to say, first of all, congratulations on your reelection to Congress, and next month you will take the oath of office to begin serving your 13th term, representing our 4th Congressional District here in Alabama. Now, you’ve been in Washington through some major events in our nation’s history. You know, several presidential changes, 9/11, the Great Recession, and now a pandemic. Congressman, as you reflect on essentially a quarter century of service in the U.S. Congress, what are some of the moments, big ones or small ones, that really stand out to you as you reflect?

Congressman Aderholt: Well, no question is, as the 9/11 was one of those pivotal moments in American history that will go down in the history books and hundreds of years from now, that will be up for discussion. But, you know, one thing that was quite unusual when I came to Congress, I was elected in ’96, came in January of ’97. And at the end of my first term, I was voting on an impeachment of a president, and there had only been one impeachment vote for president in American history. And of course, we think of Richard Nixon during the Watergate scandal, and those are the issues that happened during that time period. But he was never impeached. President Nixon resigned from office. So really, you have to go back to Andrew Johnson when he was impeached back just shortly after the Civil War. Now, he was not removed from office, but on a very close vote in the Senate, that he was almost removed from office. So all this was only the second time in American history, and as a freshman in Washington, I was a part of that vote to impeach the president. And we did the vote. The House voted to impeach. And then, of course, it’s one of those things where you think it wouldn’t come around for another 100 years or more. And then, lo and behold, just earlier this year and the end of last year, we went through that same thing with impeaching the president when Trump was brought forward for impeachment.

Congressman Aderholt: So within a span of the time that I’ve been in Washington, I’ve already voted on two impeachments of a president or involved. I voted against the impeachment of President Trump, of course. But two times I had to go into the chamber to make that decision to vote for whether to vote to impeach or not. And like I said before I was elected, it had only been done once in American history. So, you know, I think about those types of situations which is unbelievable. And then, of course, you bring up today, is the pandemic. I mean, you have to go back to 100 years ago for when a pandemic occurred. So this is the first time within anybody’s memory — I don’t think there’s any one or very few people that are living today that have very much of a recall of the 1918-1919 pandemic that occurred. That was over one hundred years ago. So, yeah, I mean, the last 25 years has been quite phenomenal and a lot, so many things that have occurred. Not to mention, you know, we’ve had the war in Afghanistan and Iraq. You know, just the technology age that we live in. And when I first was elected to Congress, in my first term — it’s funny to say this — I didn’t have a web page because most people were not even and certainly people weren’t even talking about podcasts as were involved in one right now. But I remember when Newt Gingrich was Speaker of the House and encouraging members of Congress to set up a web page. And that was one of the things that, you know, email, which is becoming the thing that people were really involved in. Cell phones were out there, but obviously there was no such thing as a smartphone. So even the technology that I have seen change in the way that we communicate with our constituents has changed tremendously over the last 24 or 25 years.

Stephen Smith: Well, you have had an up close seat at the table for history unfolding, haven’t you?

Congressman Aderholt: It has been very interesting to see that and how it’s changed. We look back and we say, gosh, I can’t believe that that was the way it was then, but it happened so gradually and so slowly that a lot of it you take it for granted. You don’t realize just how it slowly creeps in and how technology and how everything changes in America. And I guess that’s the way it has been since the founding back when we declared our independence in 1776. And, you know, we’re approaching the 250th, which is called a semiquincentennial. It’s a long word for 250 years, so they just call it America 250. It’s what they’re going to be calling it, but a commission was set up a couple of years ago, and I have the privilege of being one of the commissioners on the semiquincentennial to to set up the celebration for the 250 birthday of the United States. And I know some of your listeners will remember the bicentennial, which was back in 1976. I was a young boy, but I remember it well. And of course, it’s hard to believe it’s already been 50 years, and now we’ll be celebrating the 250th birthday, God willing, of the United States of America just in a few years.

Stephen Smith: That’s exciting. Well, thank you for your service on that commission. And thank you for your service in Congress. And certainly what you have, your leadership role with rural broadband across the country and specifically for here in the state of Alabama. And thank you for joining us on the podcast today.

Congressman Aderholt: Well, glad to be with you and glad to chat about these issues. And I’ll look forward to being on again sometime.

Stephen Smith: And thank you for listening to Rural Broadband Today, where we take a look at the people and the issues shaping the rural broadband story across America. I’m your host, Stephen Smith, and this program is produced by WordSouth — A Content Marketing Company. Please share this episode with your network and help us tell the rural broadband story. Thanks for listening.

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