Rep. Joe Kennedy on Tuesday night took aim at one of Sen. Ed Markey’s signature bills, the Telecommunications Act of 1996, arguing too many families still cannot afford cable service or access broadband at a time of confusion and concerns for public health as teachers and parents grapple with COVID-19 heading into the school year.
In a WCVB debate, both candidates urgently pressed the federal government to assist cash-strapped states and towns with an injection of stimulus aid to help schools reopen safely and to assist with hybrid or remote learning where necessary.
Neither advocated a one-size-fits-all approach.
Markey said communities must “err on the side of caution” until “there’s a guarantee that these schools are safe.” He added that he’s pushing for $4 billion to expand internet access, broadband and Wi-Fi hotspots across the country and Massachusetts to prevent “homework and opportunity gaps” because “we have to anticipate those kids are not going to be at school.”
Markey added that “as soon as Joe Biden” is sworn into office, if elected, he’ll push for an infrastructure bill including tens of billions of dollars so broadband can be “deployed ubiquitously.”
Kennedy said families are being forced to consider how to go to work if their children don’t go to school.
“This is the biggest issue across Massachusetts today,” he said. “No one wants to send their kids to school if there’s risks to their health. But nobody wants their children to fall behind.”
He noted that the Health and Economic Recovery Omnibus Emergency Solutions (HEROES) Act, passed by the House three months ago, provides education funding that’s been hanging in the balance of stalled negotiations between Democratic leaders and the Trump administration.
“The federal government has to provide more funding,” Kennedy said. He added that communities must “make their decisions” on reopening doors to schools or having virtual learning, with flexibility given to the parents. But he argued that a lack of additional resources to American families and schools would create “a massive divide.”
Then the congressman, locked in a virtual dead with Markey, targeted the senator’s comments touting his efforts to expand internet access. At one point Kennedy could be seen smiling in reaction to Markey’s statement that “many families can’t afford cable service.”
“I was on the phone with a teacher who has tried for 10 years to get the internet to her house,” Kennedy said. “How we are expecting her to be able to teach those kids? That happened as a result of the Telecommunications Act that he says is his proudest achievement.”
Kennedy argued the landmark bill — which Markey says delivered more than $52 billion, including $740 million in Massachusetts, to get schools and libraries online and improved access for low-income students and families — “created cable bills that are astronomical. There are still 18 towns that don’t have access to broadband. That’s not an oversight, that’s a critical failure.”
Markey fired back that the Telecommunications Act “created tens of thousands of new jobs in Massachusetts. I’m very proud of that.”
Markey said that he’s “even more proud” that his legislation has helped provide internet “on the desks of children” in communities like Roxbury and Springfield.
“That has to get extended,” Markey said. “Kids are going to be home and the federal government should provide that service.”
Markey’s campaign issued a news release during the debate arguing the Telecommunications Act “unleashed competition in the broadband marketplace, driving down prices and creating jobs.” His team also highlighted Markey’s efforts to help create, review and update the Federal Communications Commission’s National Broadband Plan, and his support from the Massachusetts chapter of the American Federation of Teachers.