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Infrastructure

Critics Call Biden Infrastructure Plan Wasteful, Target Broadband Goals

Critics are unhappy about President Joe Biden’s $2.3-billion plan that includes prioritizing local builds.

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Screenshot from the Cato Institute event

April 27, 2021—Shut out of power in the House of Representatives, the Senate and the White House, free-market critics of government spending converged at the Cato Institute on Monday to trash the Biden Administration’s $2.3 trillion infrastructure plan, calling it wasteful and inefficient.

Robert Poole, director of transportation policy at Reason Foundation, particularly criticized the president’s plans for universal broadband coverage by 2030, saying that it appeared to ignore the Federal Communications Commission’s current system of reverse auctions.

Although the Biden administration infrastructure plan is short on the details for how it would spend $100 billion in broadband funds, the administration’s fact sheet does appear to prioritize funding local, regional, broadband providers and co-ops.

Yet Poole also claimed – echoing a talking point that many established cable and wireless providers are making – that the Biden administration plan was limited to fiber-optic infrastructure. Poole  condemned fiber as too costly for low-density services often necessary for rural areas.

In its current general form, “American Jobs Plan” appears to be technology neutral. Indeed, there is no mention of “fiber” or “fiber-optic” within it.

Yet some critics of the Biden plan say that in highlighting high-speed, symmetrical connections, the plan – once translated to legislative language – appears destined to subsidize fiber. Fiber-optic cable has speed and reliability advantages over cable, fixed wireless or satellite. But fiber often costs more than alternative services.

Currently, the FCC defines “high-speed” as 25 Megabits per second (Mbps) download and 3 Mbps upload, though there is a Democratic bill in the House that would redefine what is considered low and medium-tier speeds.

Fiber is crucial to other methods of broadband delivery

Moreover, while different methods of broadband deployment are sometimes better suited to different scenarios, more extensive fiber connections are also essential to expanded fixed wireless deployments. Many rural telecommunications companies lay fiber as their primary delivery method—even in regions that are often considered to be low-density, or if they also have fixed wireless assets for the “last mile.”

Though the cost of laying fiber is often greater than other methods, many states and localities have adopted policies to incentivize fiber while keeping cost down, such as “dig once” initiatives. “Dig once” initiatives keep costs down by scheduling other utility and road work simultaneously with fiber deployment.

Additional points about infrastructure plan discussed

Chris Edwards, director of tax policy studies at Cato and editor of Downsizing the Federal Government, also criticized the Biden proposal to raise the corporate tax rate to 28 percent from 21 percent. He said that would cause broadband companies would have less interest in doing business in the U.S., as other parts of the world would become more competitive.

Most of the panelists’ criticisms were focused on non- broadband provisions of the proposal.

Both Poole and Randal O’Toole, senior fellow at the Cato Institute advocated for user charges rather than subsidies. Poole was strongly in favor of the implementation of tolls to fund highway infrastructure, a cause he has advocated for decades.

He also opposed subsidizing airports and seaports and advocating for their privatization.

Edwards highlighted a different concept: Airports should be given the tools to fund their own infrastructure improvements by deregulating the industry, “The federal government puts a limit on how much states can raise from passenger charges to fund their own airports—that makes no sense,” he said.

O’Toole also criticized subsidies for mass transit, arguing that transit is responsible for almost the exact same amount of greenhouse gases per passenger mile as cars. This statistic is at odds with data collected by the U.S. Department of Transportation’s Federal Transit Administration.

Ultimately, the panelists denounced the Biden plan as allocated federal monies unnecessarily, and doing little to address the goals Biden established at the outset of his presidency: They argued that its “green” elements would pollute more than it will preserve, and its broadband elements would see investment by ISPs in the United States shrink.

Funding

FCC Should Not Increase Rural Program Obligations in Light of New Federal Funding: Meeting Notes

Opponents say increasing coverage and speed obligations of the ACAM program may be unnecessary with new federal broadband money.

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Photo of FCC commissioners

WASHINGTON, August 4, 2022 – The Federal Communications Commission should withhold expanding funding for a program of the Universal Service Fund because there may be support for broadband infrastructure from other federal funds and state activities, according to responses to the FCC proceeding on revising that program.

The FCC’s Wireline Competition Bureau is seeking comment on enhancing the Alternative Connect America Cost Model program – which funds build-outs to rural and high-cost areas by allowing carriers to recover costs from the USF – by proposing additional funding support in exchange for increasing provider obligations to expand broadband deployment locations at higher internet speeds. It would also use the new Broadband DATA Act maps – which are set to be released by the fall – to determine new deployment obligations.

The new obligations would require speeds of at least 100 Megabits per second download and 20 Mbps upload to 90 percent and at least 25/3 Mbps to the remaining 10 percent of eligible census blocks. In 2019, the commission increased the speed obligation to 25/3, which made at least 106,000 additional rural homes and small businesses eligible for A-CAM funding.

But the proposal is facing some opposition. According to a meeting summary with a legal advisor in Commissioner Brendan Carr’s office published Tuesday, telecom company Windstream reiterated that Congress has created an unprecedented $42.5-billion opportunity to deploy broadband networks in rural areas through the Infrastructure, Investment and Jobs Act and corresponding state broadband programs.

Windstream stressed in the meeting the importance of studying the IIJA’s impact prior to increasing current obligations to fund broadband projects, which it said would impact the stability of the USF.

The FCC is currently studying the future of the USF, whose revenues are derived largely from dwindling voice service revenues. Windstream expressed its support of the commission acting under what Windstream views as the FCC’s authority to expand the USF contribution base to include broadband internet access services, which has been an issue of debate for some time and is being studied by the commission.

NCTA, the internet and television association, in a summary of a meeting held with the legal advisor to Chairwoman Jessica Rosenworcel, added that rather than spend USF resources where they may not be necessary – and may even disrupt state activities already in progress – the commission should pause any new high-cost support through the A-CAM program.

The association added that the FCC should be skeptical of requests to increase support for ongoing maintenance and operations through A-CAM as alternative federal funding may eliminate the need for operational support in many areas.

Comments on the decision to revise A-CAM will be accepted through August 18.

The proposal follows a request in June by Siyeh Communications, which asked for a change in A-CAM because the program allegedly incorrectly determined certain areas to be ineligible by misidentifying those areas being served by an unsubsidized, unaffiliated carrier.

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Funding

Agriculture Department Announces Fourth Round of ReConnect Funding

The announcement is the second round of ReConnect funding in fiscal year 2022.

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Photo of RUS Acting Administrator Christopher McLean by Drew Clark from June 2022

ASHINGTON, August 1, 2022 – The Rural Utilities Service of the United States Department of Agriculture announced the fourth round of funding for the ReConnect Program, with publication of the funding opportunity announcement scheduled for the federal register on August 4.

The announcement is the second round of ReConnect funding in fiscal year 2022.

The RUS has seen great interest in the third round of funding and is considering drawing on other federal infrastructure funds to satisfy demands, said the Acting Administrator Christopher McLean said in June. The latest round of funding received 305 applications requesting a total of $4.8 billion, but the program only allocated $1.15 billion.

USDA Considering Drawing on Infrastructure Bill Money as ReConnect Demand Increases

 

The ReConnect Program uses funds provided under the Infrastructure and Investment Jobs Act which sets aside $42.5 billion for the National Telecommunications and Information Administration to disburse among states for broadband infrastructure. It provides loans and grants to broadband deployment projects in rural areas.

The application will open 30 days after the announcement of funding opportunity is released. Applications will be submitted through the RUS online application portal on the ReConnect webpage. The application process will be open for 60 days.

Applicants should consider projects that will assist rural communities recover economically from the COVID-19 pandemic, ensure all rural residents have equitable access to rural development programs, and reduce climate pollution while increasing resilience to the impacts of climate change.

Proposed service areas are eligible for funding if at least 50 percent of the households in the area lack sufficient access to broadband as defined in the funding opportunity announcement.

As part of the application process, applicants are expected to undergo an evaluation process and will be scored based on the rurality of the proposed service area, level of existing service, economic need of the community, affordability of service offerings, net neutrality principles, cybersecurity, and labor standards. Applications submitted by local governments, non-profits and tribal governments will be awarded higher scores.

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Expert Opinion

Dave Wright: Shared Relocation Fund Will Make More of Finite Spectrum Resource

‘Wireless connectivity is one of the most vital aspects of our digital infrastructure.’

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The Author of this Expert Opinion is Dave Wright, president of OnGo Alliance and head of global wireless policy at Hewlett Packard Enterprise

In order to meet the gaps in broadband connectivity that persist throughout the country, we must have a more comprehensive view for the necessity of all available spectrum – whether shared, licensed or unlicensed – understanding that they are complementary and independently important to our nation’s future.

As we figure out how we will meet the needs of an increasingly wireless world, it is critical that we think collaboratively on how we can free up and share spectrum, working closely and cooperatively with the federal agencies responsible for our nation’s spectrum resources, the Federal Communications Commission and the National Telecommunication and Information Administration.

With recent confirmed leadership appointments in the NTIA and FCC, and renewed focus on collaboration and collegiality between these organizations, there is hope for renewed effectiveness in America’s overall management of our spectrum resources.

From a policy perspective, the OnGo Alliance is working to shed light on the incentives that inherently exist around the way spectrum is made available today. For terrestrial uses, there are two long established methods for making spectrum available – via a licensing process including an auction of the frequencies, or via an unlicensed allocation where spectrum is made available on a license-exempt basis.

Licensed bands have given rise to our cellular connectivity, while unlicensed spectrum has enabled innovations like the Wi-Fi and Bluetooth solutions that we know and depend upon today. The near ubiquitous presence of these technologies speaks to the efficacy of these approaches. The US 3.5 GHz Citizens Broadband Radio Service is the first spectrum access framework that combines aspects of licensed (protected access) and unlicensed (opportunistic access) spectrum within a single, dynamically managed access paradigm.

Congress has increasingly been looking to licensed spectrum auctions as a source of revenue to cover the funding requirements for new programs. And Federal users who are occupying spectrum and then make the spectrum available for auction can take advantage of monies made available through the Spectrum Relocation Fund to cover the costs associated with transitioning their systems.

The SRF is in turn funded based the resulting auction revenues. These are examples of the current incentives in the system which are either directly or indirectly tied to auction revenues of licensed spectrum. These incentives inherently bias the policymaking processes toward licensed spectrum, at the expense of unlicensed and/or opportunistic spectrum like we have in the CBRS General Authorized Access tier.

This bias is not helpful in our quest to provide accessible broadband throughout the nation as unlicensed and GAA are key components in most solutions, from Wi-Fi as the “last meter” connection to a fixed broadband network to GAA’s prominent role in rural fixed wireless offerings.

CBRS is an optimal framework for putting mid-band spectrum to intensive uses for a wide variety of uses. In the only two years since CBRS commercial operations were approved by the FCC, over 225,000 CBRS base stations have been installed nationwide.

Collaboration between cloud players, system integrators, radio vendors and operators has reached critical mass, building a vibrant, self-sustaining ecosystem. CBRS has allowed enterprises and rural farms alike the opportunity to install private 4G and 5G networks that are connecting IoT devices – from factory robots to autonomous farm equipment. School districts, airports, military bases and logistics facilities, factories, hospitals, office buildings, and public libraries are only but a few of the limitless facilities where connectivity has been enabled by CBRS spectrum.

Wireless connectivity is one of the most vital aspects of our digital infrastructure, and we must use all of the available resources in order to make broadband as ubiquitous as any other utility. Our policymaking, and the incentives around it, must account for the fact that all types of spectrum are important – whether licensed, unlicensed or shared – and that it is vital to ensure that there are proper allocations of each type to meet the relentless demand. We must work together to make the most of what we have.

Dave Wright played an instrumental role in the formation of the OnGo Alliance (originally known as the CBRS Alliance), collaborating with other founding members to create a robust multi-stakeholder organization focused on the optimization of LTE and 5G services in the CBRS band. He served as the Alliance’s first Secretary from its launch in August 2016 and was elected as the President of the Alliance in February 2018. He advocates for unlicensed, licensed, and dynamic sharing frameworks – recognizing the vital role that all spectrum management regimes play in our increasingly wireless world. This piece is exclusive to Broadband Breakfast.

Broadband Breakfast accepts commentary from informed observers of the broadband scene. Please send pieces to commentary@breakfast.media. The views expressed in Expert Opinion pieces do not necessarily reflect the views of Broadband Breakfast and Breakfast Media LLC.

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