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Cawthorn tries to succeed where state broadband bills failed

Cawthorn tries to succeed where state broadband bills failed

The Coronavirus Pandemic has lain bare the massive digital divide between those with reliable high-speed internet access and those without, and a number of efforts by western legislators have attempted to address the issue over the past few years.

With the rest of the General Assembly unwilling or unable to bring rural North Carolina parity with the state’s most populous regions, Western North Carolina’s congressman announced he’ll soon file a bill intended to provide a solution. 

“I’ll be the first to say, this is not some big Republican messaging bill, this is not something that’s going to get me on Fox News, attacking the liberal agenda. This bill is just something that gets the job done,” said Rep. Madison Cawthorn, R-Hendersonville. “Our number one priority when writing this was speed of deployment. We were really focused on this idea of how do we get rural broadband to people in the United States, specifically in Western North Carolina, the fastest we possibly can.” 

It’s called the ROBUST Act — Rural Opportunities for Broadband in Underserved Settlements and Towns. Cawthorn’s drafted the bill, which as of press time hadn’t yet been filed, with a free-market solution in mind. 

According to Cawthorn, major corporations buy up portions of the electromagnetic spectrum for competitive reasons, but then fail to utilize it. 

“Think of the spectrum as a solid form of land, something that you can own,” he said. “Let’s say there’s a housing crisis, and somebody owns 6,000 acres in an area and it’s not being used. We want to encourage that person — ‘Hey, what if you leased this land out so we can build some homes?’ The thing that we’re trying to do is to encourage them to lease that spectrum out to smaller providers in local areas who are saying, Hey, I’m not just here for major profits. I’m here to serve people in Western North Carolina.”

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If adopted, the ROBUST Act would require the Federal Communications Commission to determine areas where the spectrum isn’t being utilized and implement a secondary subleasing market. It would also encourage the FCC to auction off licenses in smaller sizes, levelling the playing field for smaller providers like those found in rural areas. Funding for USDA ReConnect Program loans would also be included to support bringing 25 megabit download and 3 megabit upload speeds to the mountains. 

“During the General Election, a lot of parents were still trying to figure out how they were going to handle school. I heard this story from a woman that really moved me,” Cawthorn said. “She’s a single mother, she had a full-time job, she worked another job on the side, and for her kids to be able to actually complete their homework, she would have to take them to sit outside of a McDonald’s at night after she just worked a very long shift.”

Cawthorn’s proposed bill comes just as news about another state effort, called the FIBER NC Act  and spearheaded by Sen. Kevin Corbin, R-Franklin, appears to lack the support needed for passage. 

“Probably not,” Corbin said, when asked if the bill had a chance to become law. 

Corbin’s introduced several bills, over several years, that have made an impact in the form of grants to western counties, but the FIBER NC Act ’s proposal to let underserved local government units engage in the broadband business continues to receive staunch opposition from the same groups that are likely to oppose Cawthorn’s bill. 

“It’s very simple, it’s the special interest groups,” Cawthorn said. “You know, these people who have large pockets. This is a big problem on both the Republican and the Democrat side. People are so indebted to these major corporations who supply almost all of their fundraising money, but you know what? I rely on small dollar fundraising. We get $5, $10, $25 donations. That’s who I answer to, the American people the everyday man and woman who wants to see Congress work for them.” 

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