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Congress punished rural TV viewers, and we will pay the price during the pandemic

Thousands of Americans are set to lose vital access to network programming

A small television set sits inside the kitchen of a restaurant in Millis, Mass., on March 18. At a time when Americans need to know what’s going out, thousands of rural residents are facing a network TV blackout, Boucher writes.
A small television set sits inside the kitchen of a restaurant in Millis, Mass., on March 18. At a time when Americans need to know what’s going out, thousands of rural residents are facing a network TV blackout, Boucher writes. (Jessica Rinaldi/The Boston Globe via Getty Images file photo)

Like most Americans, I am weathering the coronavirus pandemic at home as I do my part to flatten the curve and give overworked health care providers and the hundreds of thousands of COVID-19 patients in the U.S. a better chance at beating the disease. For us newly minted shut-ins, TV has become even more of a lifeline as we seek out news on the virus … and a respite from it.

Even in this internet-connected world, broadcast television still plays a vital role. While most Americans in most places can receive broadcast programming simply by hooking up an antenna, our nation is a vast place with terrain that varies from prairie-flat to alpine-steep. Anyone who has traveled in the beautiful state of Montana, for example, knows this. While the state’s landscape, with its amazing mountains and vast distances, make it beautiful, that terrain can also pose vexing problems for a broadcast TV signal.

In the best conditions, a TV signal runs out of gas after about 60 miles. Throw in a couple of mountains, and the distance dwindles, leaving a lot of people in rural states with no ability to receive a TV signal over the air. Because these locations are remote, cable systems are not available. Traditionally, these homes have been served by means of a satellite receiver that imports a network signal from some distance away. These “distant signals” provide vital network programming.

For thousands of rural Americans, that lifeline may soon be cut off, leaving their households blind, right at the time we need to see what is going on.

I am a Virginian, and I know the difficulties caused by terrain. The mountainous district I represented in Congress for nearly 30 years, and where I live today, challenges a broadcast signal. I have a rural mindset, and in an effort to ensure that all rural Americans — whether they lived in the Appalachians or the Rockies, the Great Plains or the Tidewater wetlands — could get television, I authored a law that allowed everyone to receive network TV programming, over the air where possible and via satellite where necessary.

The Satellite Home Viewer Act has been renewed every five years since it became law in 1988. Its name has been changed and its language has evolved, but until late last year, what we now call the Satellite Television Extension and Localism Act Reauthorization, or STELAR, continually ensured rural Americans’ access to a network TV signal. In December, however, Congress decided to turn a good law bad and let key parts of STELAR expire.

Due to the pandemic, that failure is going to hit some rural residents very hard. By failing to renew provisions in the law that allow satellite TV companies like DirecTV to bring signals from TV stations outside of local markets into those places where a TV signal can’t penetrate, Congress ignored a basic rural need. It’s not only those who live in the countryside who got the cold shoulder, but long-haul truckers and RV owners too. Their only access to network programming  is through distant network signals.

In this unprecedented time of social distancing, the rural resident staying at home to prevent the virus’s spread, the trucker delivering much-needed goods across the country, and the retiree living in an RV shouldn’t be punished because they live in the country or because their house or workplace doesn’t sit on a foundation but rolls on wheels. Those of us who live outside of America’s cities, who earn their living on the road, or who live in RVs shouldn’t be treated as second-class citizens at any time, and especially not now.

 Fortunately, there is a way out of this unfortunate situation. These anti-rural, anti-trucker, anti-RV provisions are scheduled to go into effect on June 1. Congress can and should give rural residents, truckers and RVers a break during the coronavirus pandemic and hold off on implementing the new law during this pivotal year. That won’t solve the problem Congress created, but it will give lawmakers time to reconsider their mistake, and in the meantime ensure that all Americans can continue to avoid TV blackouts and get the information they need during one of our nation’s most trying times.

Rick Boucher represented Virginia’s 9th District as a Democrat from 1983 to 2011 and is a former chairman of the House Energy and Commerce Subcommittee on Communications and the Internet. He is the honorary chairman of the Internet Innovation Alliance and an attorney in the Washington, D.C., office of the law firm Sidley Austin.

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