Government

Congress working remotely highlights need for better broadband connectivity, Loebsack says

U.S. Rep. Dave Loebsack
U.S. Rep. Dave Loebsack

As with other members of the United States House of Representatives, the “new normal” for Rep. Dave Loebsack involves a lot of time on the phone and in video conferences.

Although the Senate returned to Washington, D.C., this past week, the House may not return to the Capitol until mid-May. As representatives work from their districts, many face the same challenges as their constituents who are working from home via various phone and video meeting platforms.

“They’re clunky, difficult, frustrating at times,” the 2nd District Democrat said after a 90-minute Energy and Commerce Committee teleconference meeting, “but we can get a lot of things done that way without necessarily going into Washington.

“It’s not the same by any means ..., but I think we can get a lot of our work done that we have to get done even though were not there.”

If there’s an upside to the telecommuting downside, it’s that the poor connections, dropped calls and sometimes spotty internet signals highlight an issue Loebsack has been working on — Congress and the country need better broadband connectivity. A member of the Communications and Technology subcommittee of the Energy and Commerce Committee, which has jurisdiction over telecommunications issues, Loebsack also serves as a co-chair of the Rural Broadband Caucus.

In one meeting, Loebsack said, a committee member was unable to ask questions because the Wi-Fi signal at his home outside a southwestern city was so poor.

“So I think we’re going to make some progress” convincing congressional colleagues of the need to connect all Americans to reliable and affordable broadband internet, Loebsack said.

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“In times like these, when families are at home, millions of K-12 students do not have access to the high-speed internet needed to take classes and complete their assignments online,” he said in an announcement with House Majority Whip James Clyburn and others of a House Democratic plan to connect all Americans to high-speed internet.

When the transmission of COVID-19 slows, the need for high-speed internet connectivity will remain as well as the need for Congress to provide incentives for internet service providers to close the “broadband gap” by extending service to the last mile in rural areas and eliminate what Loebsack called “internet deserts” that exist in cities.

The plan calls for an investment of $80 billion over five years for internet infrastructure and another $5 billion over five years for low-interest financing of projects.

With more reliable connectivity, Congress could consider remote voting at times like this when members don’t want to gather in Washington. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi has been cool to the idea, but Loebsack thinks members are “more open” to voting remotely.

“But we have to make sure that it’s completely secure, that the system can’t get hacked, and that votes are recorded properly,” he said.

Remote voting might be a generational issue, “but I think this is doable.”

“I’m not making that prediction, but I would not be shocked if we move in that direction, especially the longer this (isolation) goes on,” Loebsack said.

Comments: (319) 398-8375; james.lynch@thegazette.com

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