It took a pandemic to finally drive home what has been discussed for decades: The need for a digital infrastructure plan to connect all Americans.
The Biden administration’s $1 trillion infrastructure spending package includes $65 billion for broadband access to improve internet services for rural areas, low-income families and tribal communities. Most of the money would be made available through grants to states.
The expenditure — originally proposed last year at $100 billion — represents a big win for the cable and wireless industries.
A major chunk, $42.45 billion, will be overseen by the Commerce Department and its telecom division. The National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA) is responsible for making grants to states. President Joe Biden recently nominated Alan Davidson to head the NTIA.
Another significant slice, $14.2 billion, will go to the Federal Communications Commission to establish an Affordable Connectivity Program, an extension and revision of the Emergency Broadband Benefit that provides $30 monthly broadband subsidies for eligible households.
The rest of the package: $2.75 billion for a Digital Equity Program to ensure that “individuals and communities have the information technology capacity that is needed for full participation in the society and economy of the United States”; $2 billion for RUS ReConnect; $2 billion for the Tribal Broadband Program; $1 billion for a new middle-mile program overseen by NTIA; and $600 million for Private Activity Bonds for broadband deployments. The infrastructure bill also highlights funding for WiFi networks in apartment buildings.
The breadth and scope of the infrastructure goodies drew consistently high praise from wireless and telecom experts like USTelecom CEO Jonathan Spalter. “It recognizes the private model of broadband deployment in the United States, with targeted public support in unserved or hard-to-reach communities, is the key to achieving 100% connectivity,” Spalter said in a statement.
“This ‘open toolbox’ approach will help consumers by driving innovation and keeping internet plans affordable and accessible to all,” the Wireless Internet Service Providers Association, which lobbied for a “tech-neutral” approach to the bill rather than one that favored fiber, said in a statement.
“The operational support provided by the bill will help state governments collect data, draft broadband plans, and coordinate with partners to increase high-speed internet access,” Kathryn de Wit, project director for Pew Internet Research’s broadband access initiative, said. “These evidence-based activities, informed by the progress state and local leaders have already made over the last several years, will guide how federal funds are used to expand broadband access across the nation.”
Now, comes the hard part: Implementing such an ambitious agenda across so many states in various stages of need.
“We now need to move our focus from Congress to NTIA and the state and local level,” Gary Bolton, president of the Fiber Broadband Association, said in a statement. “Only 26 states currently have broadband offices, and other states have a designate, which is typically a multi-agency broadband task force. And, while 40 states currently have broadband programs, these state broadband programs vary widely.”