A bill has been reintroduced in the U.S. Senate that seeks to protect and expand rural broadband access along with encouraging investment in high-speed internet.
The Access to Capital Creates Economic Strength and Supports (ACCESS) Rural America Act was proposed again on May 15, 2019, by Senators Tammy Baldwin (D-WI) and Joni Ernst (R-IA). The bipartisan legislation would offer regulatory relief by streamlining the process to submit financial reports to the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) for rural telecommunications service providers. The bill would increase the number of investors that triggers SEC public reporting requirements for rural telecommunications companies. For these small companies it would limit the amount of costly SEC reporting that wasn’t intended for businesses of that size.
“Reliable high-speed broadband is critical to strengthening small businesses and communities throughout rural Wisconsin. Unfortunately, rural telecom companies are getting hit with disclosure costs that were never intended for them, creating new challenges to delivering broadband access throughout Wisconsin,” said Senator Baldwin. “Our bipartisan legislation provides the regulatory relief that rural service providers need to build-out high-speed broadband in small communities and continue our efforts to bring broadband access for all – no matter where you live in Wisconsin.”
“Access to quality broadband and high-speed internet is essential to competing in today’s economy. Unfortunately, many of our rural telecom providers get caught up in Washington’s regulatory web, making it that much harder to invest in broadband across Iowa,” said Senator Joni Ernst. “With this bipartisan legislation, we’re expanding access to broadband for our rural communities in Iowa.”
The same pair of Senators introduced the bill in the previous session of Congress on Nov. 15, 2018, but it never made its way out of the Senate Banking, Housing, and Urban Affairs Committee and did not get any additional co-sponsors. A companion bill was proposed in the U.S. House of Representatives on Sept. 9, 2018, and also failed to make it out of Committee. The House bill was sponsored by Rep. Sean Duffy (R-WI) and cosponsored by Reps. Krysten Sinema (D-AZ) and Vicente Gonzalez (D-TX).
Sinema, who is now a Senator, has returned as co-sponsor in the latest version of the ACCESS bill and is joined by Senator Kevin Cramer (R-ND) in supporting the legislation.
The bill has the backing of several national and state communication associations along with local communications companies. Here is a sampling of what some of these groups had to say about the legislation:
- “Small, rural broadband providers want to focus their energy, efforts and investment toward connecting more rural broadband customers. Unfortunately, the risk of expensive compliance associated with Sarbanes-Oxley regulations has forced some broadband providers to redirect their energy and resources to keeping shareholder counts below a certain threshold. These small, locally owned companies, many of which are more than 100 years old, are seeking reasonable relief from the threat of burdensome SOX regulations, which could cost their companies more than $1 million annually. We fully support the efforts of Senator Baldwin to provide the thoughtful, measured relief of the ACCESS Rural America Act,” said William C. Esbeck, Executive Director of the Wisconsin State Telecommunications Association.
- “Federal Securities and Exchange Commission registration and reporting requirements intended for larger, publicly-traded firms pose significant challenges for, and can impose substantial burdens on, smaller, locally-owned companies with limited resources. NTCA therefore greatly appreciates the leadership of Sens. Tammy Baldwin, Joni Ernst, Kyrsten Sinema, and Kevin Cramer in introducing the ACCESS Rural America Act, which will help relieve these burdens and enable small providers to focus more on their core mission of deploying and operating advanced broadband networks in rural areas,” said Shirley Bloomfield, CEO of NTCA–The Rural Broadband Association.
- “We are extremely pleased to learn of Senator Baldwin’s effort to support a Sarbanes Oxley relief bill for Senate consideration. Resources expended on SEC registration compliance would directly reduce funds available for broadband expansion and slow or even halt expansion and endanger our business to continue. SEC compliance would be in addition to the rigorous reporting already in place. Resources are continually being spent to educate shareholders on the thresholds and to manage the effects of exceeding the thresholds. We look forward to seeing our Senate working in a bipartisan effort to help incent rural broadband providers deploy network to assist economic development and telemedicine in the rural portions of our great state of Wisconsin,” said John Klatt, President/CEO of Lakeland Communications in Milltown, Wisconsin.
- “Northeast Iowa Telephone Company (NEIT), a provider of broadband Internet and other communication services in rural areas of Northeast Iowa via state of the art fiber optic network(s) is pleased that Senator Ernst is sponsoring important legislation to provide significant relief from burdensome Sarbanes-Oxley rules for small telecommunications providers. Passage of this legislation will allow NEIT, and companies like it, to continue expanding broadband service, truly the “Super Highway” of the 21st Century throughout rural parts of the US rather than having to use scarce resources on complying with additional federal regulations for small telecommunications companies who are already subject to significant regulation from other Federal and State Agencies. We look forward to passage of this legislation so that the important work of deploying advanced broadband services that will allow rural customers to compete in the global economy can continue,” said David Byers, Chief Operating Officer at Northeast Iowa Telephone Co. in Monona, Iowa.
- “As a community-based communications company in northwest Iowa serving 21,000 customers in 30 communities, Premier Communications is pleased to have the support of Senator Ernst in sponsoring legislation with the purpose of reducing the financial and regulatory burdens of existing Sarbanes-Oxley rules. Without the expansion of the shareholder thresholds, Premier would be forced to file with the Securities and Exchange Commission and take on the financial burden of meeting the numerous regulations. With this proposed legislation, Premier will be able to continue focusing on network investments in fiber optics that will serve its rural customers with advanced broadband services and applications rather than allocating precious financial resources in regulation. In addition, we have seen increased economic development opportunities in the rural communities where network investments have occurred and we look forward to continuing that throughout all of our service territory,” said Doug Boone, CEO of Premier Communications in Sioux Center, Iowa.
- “We thank Senator Ernst for her continuous efforts to eliminate burdensome Federal requirements that impede rural Broadband deployment. Thank you Senator Ernst for supporting Iowa's locally owned and operated broadband service providers. We look forward to working together for successful passage of this important legislation,” said Dave Duncan, CEO of the Iowa Telecommunications Alliance.
The full text of the legislation is available here.