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Infrastructure

3 House Bills Would Create New Speed Tiers For Broadband, Dole Out Up to $100 Billion in Funds

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Photo of Rep. Jim Clyburn from March 2018 by Preston Keres of USDA

March 22, 2021 – Three bills, worth $100 billion dollars and introduced in the House, will change the nation’s definition of served and unserved by dramatically upping the threshold for broadband speeds.

The bill will create new categories including unserved, low-tier and mid-tier for federal funding on broadband projects. The new definition of “served,” which was previously categorized as areas with access to speeds of 25 Megabits per second (Mbps) download and 3 Mbps upload, would be updated to bump up the upload speed to 25 Mbps.

Low-tier would be considered areas with between 25/25 Mbps and 100/100 Mbps speeds, and medium-tier would be viewed as 100/100 Mbps to gigabit symmetrical.

The new definitions would reflect enhancements in broadband technology and a previous call for speed definitions to be reassessed in light of the pandemic and consumer uptake of higher speeds.

The first bill, the Accessible, Affordable Internet for All Act, H.R. 1783, was re-introduced on March 12 by House Majority Whip James Clyburn, D-S.C., and the rural broadband task force. Clyburn has been a long-time advocate for more broadband funding, and the task force, consisting of all House Democrats, was formed with that goal in mind. The bill was also introduced in the Senate by Sen. Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn.

The $100-billion bill includes $80 billion for investment in broadband infrastructure in unserved urban and rural areas, 75 percent of which goes to a national competitive bidding system, and 25 percent to states for separate competitive bidding programs in each state and to unserved anchor institutions, including hospitals and schools with speeds of less than 1 gigabit per 1,000 users. The bill stipulates that the FCC and states must first hold competitive bidding exclusive for bidders offering gigabit symmetrical service.

The $80 billion program includes requirements that broadband providers must meet to receive funding, including offering service with at least 100 Mbps symmetrical speed with low latency; prices that are comparable to, or lower than, prices charged for comparable service; and offering an affordable service plan.

Also includes funding for digital inclusion initiatives

The bill also includes over $1 billion for new grant programs aimed at digital equity and digital inclusion initiatives; $5 billion funding over five years for a new low-interest financing program for eligible entities on broadband infrastructure projects; a “dig once” initiative to ensure improved coordination of transportation and broadband infrastructure projects; and $26 million in annual funding for a new Office of Internet Connectivity and Growth, administered by the National Telecommunications and Information Administration, for overseeing broadband projects such as the new grant programs.

It also includes an additional $6 billion for the recently established Emergency Broadband Benefit program, and $2 billion for the new Emergency Connectivity Fund. It also authorizes $200 million to help states participate in the National Lifeline Eligibility Verifier, the application process run by the Universal Service Administrative Company, a nonprofit subsidiary that collects and distributes the Universal Service Fund.

Additionally, it would provide $500 million for the NTIA’s Tribal Broadband Connectivity program and $100 million for U.S. territories.

The bill also requires the FCC to update the E-Rate internet subsidy program, which would allow Wi-Fi on school buses to qualify for E-Rate funding. The program was recently extended to households.

Second measure is the Leading Infrastructure for Tomorrow’s America Act, third measure is H.R. 1672

The second bill is the Leading Infrastructure for Tomorrow’s America Act, or LIFT America Act, H.R. 1848, re-introduced by the Democratic members of the House Energy and Commerce Committee on March 11, part of which would allocate $94 billion in funds for expanding broadband. This is an increase from previous versions of the bill that were introduced in the past but never made it to a vote.

The LIFT America Act, similar in scope to the Accessible, Affordable Internet for All Act, includes $80 billion for increasing broadband access nationwide in underserved urban and rural areas; $5 billion for a low-interest financing program for broadband projects; and $9.3 billion for broadband affordability and adoption programs.

Like the first bill, the LIFT America Act also includes $6 billion for the Emergency Broadband Benefit fund, and $2 billion for the Emergency Connectivity Fund.

The third bill is H.R. 1672, introduced on March 9 by Rep. Peter Welch, D-Vermont, who co-chairs the bipartisan House rural broadband caucus and is also a member of the rural broadband task force. This bill, like the other two, would provide up to $79 billion in funding for broadband projects.

Fiber

Yellowstone Fiber Launches $65M Fiber Project with UTOPIA in Gallatin County, Montana

This will be the “first true gigabit city in the state of Montana,” said Bozeman’s director of economic development.

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Screenshot of Bozeman Deputy Mayor Terry Cunningham in 2018

BOZEMAN, MONTANA, January 27, 2022 – Non-profit Yellowstone Fiber, in partnership with telecom Utopia Fiber, launched Thursday a $65-million high-speed fiber internet project in Gallatin County, Montana.

The open access model, which allows other telecoms to ride on the infrastructure to encourage competition, will mean “affordable access and service provider choice,” Brit Fontenot, Bozeman’s director of economic development and community relations, said during a Thursday press conference announcing the launch. Bozeman is a city in Gallatin County.

Yellowstone and Utopia, a sponsor of Broadband Breakfast, partnered back in September on the build, which is expected to bring speeds of 100 Gigabits per second download for businesses and 10 Gbps download for all 22,000 homes, businesses and government buildings in Bozeman, a Thursday press release said, adding the three-year construction project will begin this spring.

This will be the “first true gigabit city in the state of Montana,” said Fontenot.

The choice of Bozeman and Gallatin County was a deliberate one, said Bozeman Deputy Mayor Terry Cunningham. Gallatin County has created “25 percent of all new jobs in Montana in the past decade,” in addition to being responsible for “30 percent of all population growth” of Montana, said Cunningham, adding there are “clean, data-driven companies…coming to Bozeman.”

The project is also expected to go beyond the initial $65 million. Utopia Fiber Executive Director Roger Timmerman said at the press conference that some phases can start sooner as additional grants and funds are made available. The project proponents noted that the funds will come from private, not taxpayer, sources.

The announcement comes just days after the state hired location analytics company Lightbox to build a statewide broadband map. The state is listed on data platform BroadbandNow as the worst state for broadband coverage and access, despite Federal Communications Commission mapping data that report 99 percent of Gallatin County having broadband access, the Thursday press release noted.

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Infrastructure

With State Plan and Federal Funds, California in Good Position to Close Digital Divide

Ernesto Falcon of the EFF says the state’s current plans, assisted by the IIJA, will connect everyone in the state.

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Ernesto Falcon, senior legislative counsel at the Electronic Frontier Foundation

WASHINGTON, January 25, 2022 – California’s current expansion plans plus federal infrastructure funding puts the state’s efforts to close the digital divide in a good position, counsel at the Electronic Frontier Foundation said Wednesday.

Ernesto Falcon, senior legislative counsel at fiber-access nonprofit the Electronic Frontier Foundation, said on a Fiber for Breakfast event hosted by the Fiber Broadband Association that new money from the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act will help it focus its efforts on providing access to unserved individuals and work more to improve broadband speeds for those who have access to less than 25 Megabits per second download and 3 Mbps upload – considered underserved.

Falcon remarked that California is making sure to place fiber infrastructure in urban markets rather than just focusing on rural markets – a common mistake made, he said, due to the perception that rural areas are in need of much less connectivity improvement than urban ones.

At the present, urban Los Angeles County is “contemplating how to deliver universal fiber,” he said. And at the same time, certain organizations are working to ensure rural areas do continue to receive sufficient focus, such as joint powers authority Golden State Connect Authority.

Much of California’s broadband policy is guided by its state broadband infrastructure law. Key pillars of the law to the state’s connectivity mission include authorizing the California Public Utilities Commission to help communities develop grants and feasibility studies, and to deploy both rural and urban exchange points through a middle mile fiber network.

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FCC

Federal Communications Commission Implements Rules for Affordable Connectivity Program

The agency implemented new rules on the Affordable Connectivity Program, which makes a new subsidy permanent.

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Photo of Jessica Rosenworcel by Rob Kunzig of Morning Consult

WASHINGTON, January 24, 2022 – The Federal Communications Commission adopted rules Friday for its Affordable Connectivity Program that changes and, in some cases narrows, the eligibility requirements for the subsidy to allow for more households to be connected.

An extension of the former Emergency Broadband Benefit Program, which offered discounts to broadband service providers to subsidize connectivity and devices, the new program will make it easier for providers to get in the program by automatically making eligible providers in good standing.

Additionally, the FCC maintains that the monthly discount on broadband service is limited to one internet discount per household rather than allowing the benefit for separate members of a household. “Adopting a one-per-household limitation best ensures that Program funding is available to the largest possible number of eligible households,” the agency said in its report.

To accommodate the volume of eligible households enrolling in the ACP, the FCC allowed providers until March 22 – 60 days after its Friday order is published in the Federal Register– to make necessary changes to ensure that the ACP can be applied to providers’ currently sold plans.

“So much of our day to day—work, education, healthcare and more—has migrated online. As a result, it’s more apparent than ever before that broadband is no longer nice-to-have, it’s need-to-have, for everyone, everywhere,” said FCC Chairwoman Jessica Rosenworcel. “But there are far too many households across the country that are wrestling with how to pay for gas and groceries and also keep up with the broadband bill. This program, like its predecessor, can make a meaningful difference.”

The Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act transformed the EBB to the longer-term Affordable Connectivity Program by allocating an additional $14.2 billion to it.

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