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Public Statements


Floor Speech

Location: Washington, DC


Ms. KLOBUCHAR. Mr. President, I rise today to talk about a focus 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 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 on 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 bandaid for the American people when we have learned that the GDP annualized is going to be down 30 percent, when we learned that so many people are losing their homes or being evicted, and so many are filing for unemployment. 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 having seen how the Icelanders have high-speed internet at 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 I was hearing about for years that 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 their children are 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 is because of equipment, but oftentimes, in my State, it is because of a lack of access to high-speed internet.

Stories of one girl in Southern Minnesota who had to take her biology test in a liquor store parking lot because that is where she could get the high-speed internet; the doctor--this is prepandemic--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, drive in from his home, because he did not have access there.

I thank Senator Van Hollen for bringing us together this afternoon and for 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 preexisting conditions, simply cannot put themselves at risk, and where we know, going forward, 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 host a meeting in healthcare.

In rural areas in my State, about 16 percent of households lack broadband even at baseline speeds. That means we have 144,000 households that don't have access to the internet. One of the saddest stories I remember was a household in 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 is because they were trying to get access to the internet from that one household to be able to do their homework. That was a story from Leech Lake Reservation.

Many students have shifted to online and will continue distance learning, and we need to make sure that all kids can learn. That is why I wrote a letter to Senators Peters and Tester, urging the FCC to ensure that all K-12 students have internet access to continue learning from home during this pandemic. Following the announcement of school closings 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 am grateful for Senator Markey's leadership in ensuring students have the connectivity they need. I was proud to join him and 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 pass in the Senate.

It is not just K-12 students who need help connecting to the internet during this crisis. Colleges and universities across the country have also moved classes online, and many low-income students who rely 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 this crisis 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 would say the President was accurate a week or two ago in one way when he publicly said that this is going to get worse before it gets better.

So the thought that we would allow these disparities to continue, where households cannot get high-speed internet, they are at a complete disadvantage, not just for a month--that might be OK--not just for 3 months but for a year and beyond when it comes to education. Little kids, first graders and second graders, when they are supposed to be learning to read, they can't be apart from teaching for that long a period of time without it having a major impact on their education. Again, that also includes higher education. Not every kid in a college or community college can afford high-speed internet.

That is 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-serving 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 have 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 communities. They helped our kids, but we know we need better long-term solutions.

That is 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--or maybe they don't see this as economical to reach these rural areas. I don't think it is a surprise. So many of my colleagues have had the same experiences listening to people in the rural areas of their States that our bill will now have 34 cosponsors, half Democrats, half Republicans. It would put $2 billion in to work with small providers to give them the funding 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 connecting to the internet through FCC's Lifeline Program to help low-income people connect. 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 is why in April I wrote a letter to 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 is 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's broadband maps was, in fact, signed into law in March. It was not soon enough for this pandemic, but we simply just hear: Hey, we have high-speed internet in our area, which I know Senators Wicker and Thune heard, just like I did, and in fact you go there and that isn't true at all. That is why having these updated maps, as we look at not just what we are dealing with today but 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 have 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.

The 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 a part of another piece of legislation, and it is something else we must 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 always believed that when we invest in broadband, we invest in opportunities for every American.

If we could bring electricity to everyone's home, even 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 with the haves and have-nots. It shouldn't depend on your ZIP Code whether 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 whether you are going to be able to virtually visit your mom and dad in the senior center because some places will have high-speed access that will allow us to do that and others won't. It shouldn't depend on your ZIP Code to figure out if you could actually have your doctor show you an x ray instead of going into a medical setting that maybe you don't feel comfortable going into.

All Americans should have access to high-speed internet.


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