Can Congress Bring More Broadband to Americans in Bipartisan Infrastructure Bill?

Can Congress Bring More Broadband to Americans in Bipartisan Infrastructure Bill?

The public got a look at the 2,702-page federal infrastructure bill on Sunday, giving the country more details on how the Biden administration will tackle broadband infrastructure investment.

The $65 billion being doled out to states for broadband comes in a variety of programs. The meat of the broadband funding is wrapped up in the “Broadband Equity, Access, and Deployment Program.” Based on the latest bill language, the program will be broken down as follows:

  • The Assistant Secretary of Commerce for Communications for the National Telecommunications and Information Association (NTIA) would be responsible for awarding more than $42 billion in grants to states for “broadband deployment.”
  • The NTIA will award at least $100 million to each state and U.S. territory.
  • According to the infrastructure bill fact sheet, “States would be required to have enforceable plans to address all of their unserved areas before they are able to fund deployment projects in underserved areas. After both unserved and underserved areas are addressed, states may use funds for anchor institution projects.”
  • States will use the money to competitively award subgrants in their respective states.

Other provisions include $2 billion for broadband construction, acquisition, and improvements in rural areas through the U.S. Department of Agriculture ReConnect program, the “Middle Mile Broadband Infrastructure,” which will be created to “encourage the expansion and extension of middle mile infrastructure to reduce the cost of connecting unserved and underserved areas to the backbone of the internet.”

For background, the term “middle mile” is an industry name used to describe “the network infrastructure that connects local networks to other network service providers, major telecom carriers, and the internet.”

Lastly, there’s the “Digital Equity Act of 2021,” which will provide grants to “promote the achievement of digital equity, support digital inclusion activities, and build capacity for efforts by states relating to the adoption of broadband” and additional funding for broadband in tribal areas.

There is no question America needs to up its broadband capabilities. An America’s Communications Association study estimates that 12 million Americans do not have access to 25/3 Mbps.

For reference, you can stream Netflix or other platforms with as little as 3 Mbps, but most high-definition streaming services require 40 Mbps.

The Federal Communications Commission estimates that more than 14 million Americans do not have access to broadband speeds of at least 25/3 Mbps in their annual “Broadband Deployment Report.” A July 2021 U.S. Accountability Office brief said 2-3 million small businesses also lack access to sufficient broadband speeds. The need to bridge unconnected Americans to broadband is irrefutable.

But what looks like a solid proposal to bridge what the bill calls “digital divide” has a couple lingering questions. One is the timing of these projects and the speed at which the technology could change.

Regarding timing, the infrastructure bill language says that the grants for the “Broadband Equity, Access, and Deployment Program” will be established no more than 180 days after the enactment of the bill. If that means states can apply for grants within 180 days, or about six months, and it could be a year or more until the grant money is awarded and construction begins on state and local projects.

The speed at which the grant program will be implemented goes hand in hand with the available technology. Will changing technology mean that underserved areas continue to be underserved by the time construction is actually complete?

Another wrinkle may be the effectiveness of federal grant program. It may interest, but not surprise, many to find out that congressional Republicans have called for an audit of the existing U.S. Department of Agriculture ReConnect program due to concerns about transparency, “overbuilding existing rural broadband,” and lack of agency coordination. The ReConnect program has awarded a combined $1.57 trillion in funding since 2019 and will receive several billion more in the latest infrastructure bill.

America ranked 27th in broadband connectivity; a measly status considering the United States is home to Silicon Valley, leading technology and social media companies, and a laundry list of mainstream cloud, SaaS, and IT companies.

Congress and the White House are putting all their chips on a state grant program. Time will tell if more Americans have the access they need for schoolwork, jobs, and the latest streaming service or if rural Americans and underserved households will continue to be just that.

Evan Harris is the media relations and outreach manager at PRI.

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