WIA President and CEO Jonathan Adelstein was an expert witness at a February 17 hearing before the House Energy and Commerce Committee. The hearing, titled “Connecting America: Broadband Solutions to Pandemic Problems” examined the importance of broadband access during the pandemic and the challenges to and solutions for ensuring that all communities have access to robust broadband. Adelstein represented WIA members and the entire wireless industry before one of the key congressional committees related to broadband deployment. Witnesses also included Matthew Wood, Vice President of Policy and General Counsel for Free Press Action; Dr. Tiffany Anderson, Superintendent of Topeka Public Schools; and Christopher Shelton, President of Communications Workers of America.
Committee members and witnesses described the challenges created by the pandemic and how connectivity has helped students continue to learn, businesses stay afloat, and families connect. Nevertheless, millions of people still do not have necessary access to sufficient broadband. Discussions centered on the digital divide, the homework gap, the need for broadband access for telehealth and the economic pressure many Americans are facing because of pandemic-related disruptions.
“WIA shares [the Committee’s] goal of ensuring that all communities benefit from broadband,” Adelstein told the committee. “The pandemic underscored the importance of broadband like never before. Every witness agrees – from virtual school to working from home to telemedicine – connectivity is essential. The pandemic generated unprecedented demand for wireless services.”
Adelstein highlighted the exceptional performance of the nation’s telecommunications networks that have kept many Americans connected throughout the pandemic. He applauded the efforts of Congress, the Federal Communications Commission, and industry to work together amid the crisis with the goal of providing crucial connectivity to keep society and the economy moving as best it could.
“As bad as the pandemic hit our families and businesses, just think how much worse it would have been if it had been before the era of broadband,” Adelstein said. “Think back just 10 or 20 years ago. The economy and our quality of life would have collapsed.”
While networks have performed exceptionally, there are portions of this country that need better broadband access, particularly in communities of color and rural areas, Adelstein said.
“The negative economic and social consequences for those left behind contrasts with the many businesses and finances that were saved by broadband and working from home,” Adelstein told the committee. “Some rural residents are left without economic opportunities, and the homework gap hurts too many students.”
To ensure those connectivity gaps are addressed, Adelstein called on Congress to provide sufficient subsidies to expand networks to serve more Americans and praised legislation which seek solutions to challenges related to broadband access.
“We will work with [Committee Members] to promote broadband infrastructure legislation that is designed to meet the challenge,” Adelstein said. “It can be developed in a bipartisan manner, given the broad level of support it enjoys among so may on this subcommittee.”
Responding to questions related to measures introduced by Republican members of the Committee designed to streamline wireless siting, Adelstein noted that any delay in siting equipment from historical reviews and other procedural requirements translates into workers not working, leases being delayed, and ultimately communities not having broadband access. This is particularly unnecessary, he said, when delays are related to collocation applications that require nothing more than adding equipment to existing sites.
“We have such a dramatic impact on the economy, it’s important that we get that done quickly,” Adelstein said, encouraging the use of reasonable measures like shot clocks and processes that remove undue burdens to siting on federal lands. “It is essential to reduce every cost because there isn’t enough capital to go around. $30 billion is massive amount our industry invests every year in wireless infrastructure, but it’s never enough to meet all needs. Every dime that goes into delays is one dime less that goes into getting broadband out into rural America.”
Adelstein also emphasized the need for a trained workforce to continue building out robust networks that are needed in every corner of the country. He highlighted industry-specific training programs like WIA’s Telecommunications Education Center and apprenticeship programs like the Telecommunications Industry Registered Apprenticeship Program, which pairs prospective and new industry workers with companies that can help train and mentor them, setting them up for success in their careers and bolstering the industry’s workforce. Adelstein also emphasized the need for educational opportunities at community colleges, technical schools, Historically Black Colleges and Universities, and Tribal Colleges and Universities to expand the wireless workforce in a way that reflects the demographics of the country.
“Our industry is committed to diversity,” Adelstein said. “We want our workforce to look like the people that we serve, which is as diverse as is the United States Apprenticeships are a great way to get people of color, veterans, disadvantaged communities, and women involved in our industry to diversify the workforce and to give them skills where they can have jobs that continue to grow as our industry grows. Apprenticeships are perfect for wireless.”
Read Adelstein’s testimony here.
Watch the hearing online here.