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Exclusive Drew Clark Column on Broadband Infrastructure Legislation

Now is the time in Congress for all good (and bad) broadband bills to be introduced.



WASHINGTON, June 18, 2021 – Now is the time in Congress for all good (and bad) broadband bills to be introduced.

As the U.S. exits the pandemic, a new focus on connectivity appears here to stay. And there are several bills addressing higher-capacity broadband infrastructure, while also seeking to enhance its impact by helping more Americans get connected to better broadband.

Though the “Digital Equity Act” did not find success when it was initially put forward in 2019 by Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., the bill has received new attention in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic. Spurred on by a year of Americans scrambling to leverage telecommuting, telehealth and distance learning software, the bill aims to allow all to participate in the virtual economy — now indivisible from the broader economy. Sens. Murray, Rob Portman, R-Ohio, and Angus King, I-Maine, co-sponsored the measure.

Among other things, the bill would establish a $60 million State Digital Equity Capacity Grant under the Commerce Department, and create a $125 million Digital Equity Competitive Grant Program for digital literacy initiatives. Qualified programs must generally be run by a non-profit organization or local educational agency.

The program appears to replicate some aspects of the prior Democratic administration focus on digital literacy, including a requirement that states must cover at least 10 percent of the costs, although a waiver process is available. More than 100 non-profits, trade organizations, and other private entities have endorsed the bill, including organizations like Microsoft and AARP. All told, the measure could allocate up to $1.25 billion for these broadband adoption efforts over five years.

There are many other measures that are now seeing the light of day, and with a real chance of being adopted. Some of them have substantially higher price tags. For example, another bipartisan effort by Sens. Michael Bennet, D-Colo., alongside Portman and King, was introduced on June 15: The new version of the “Broadband Reform and Investment to Drive Growth in the Economy Act.”

The BRIDGE Act also aims to empower local communities to more fully participate in the digital economy, but it would invest substantially — to the tune of $40 billion — in broadband infrastructure.

Notably, it would also change how broadband is defined. Currently, the Federal Communications Commission recognizes any connection capable of at least 25 Megabits per second (Mbps) download and 3 Mbps upload to be broadband. For most regions, this bill would change the definition of broadband to 100 Mbps symmetrical service. And while the bill would set 100 Mbps symmetrical as the minimum, it would also heavily incentivize gigabit speeds.

Additionally, the bill would move to legalize municipal broadband services across the country. Currently, some form of restrictions on municipal broadband exist in more than a dozen states.

Preempting states’ ability to regulate municipal broadband is also included in House Majority Whip James Clyburn’s “Accessible, Affordable Internet for All Act.” The South Carolinian’s measure (a companion version of which was introduced in the Senate by Sen. Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn.), introduced in March, would allocate $80 billion for investment in broadband infrastructure for unserved and underserved rural and inner-city areas. The bill also would require the FCC to hold a separate, early round of bidding for these projects, exclusively for providers offering gigabit speeds.

Additionally, the bill would include $1 billion for digital equity and $5 billion for a new low-interest financing program for broadband infrastructure projects. It also slates $500 million for the NTIA’s Tribal Broadband Connectivity program and $100 million for U.S. territories.

Another bill put forward in March is the “Leading Infrastructure for Tomorrow’s America Act,” which would allocate an additional $94 billion to expand broadband infrastructure and “build back better” after the pandemic. Rep. Frank Pallone, D-N.J., introduced the bill, which allocates $80 billion to improve broadband access across the country while improving funding for the Emergency Broadband Benefit and the Emergency Connectivity Fund. The “LIFT Act” would also set-aside $5 billion and $9.3 billion for a low-interest financing program for broadband infrastructure and broadband affordability and adoption programs. Also in March, Rep. Peter Welch, D-Vt., introduced the “Connect America Act of 2021,” which would amend the “Communications Act of 1934” and provide $79 billion to fund broadband infrastructure projects around the country.

Some of these bills could be vehicles for the Biden administration’s American Jobs Plan, which called for $100 billion of investment into broadband infrastructure around the country. Republicans initially rebuffed President Joe Biden’s $100 billion with their own $20 billion framework. But they two sides have said they could agree upon $65 billion.

The need for better broadband connectivity is generally considered a rare example of viable bipartisan agreement at a time of general partisan warfare.

Still, some have criticized these large sums for infrastructure as getting out of hand: “The BRIDGE Act ignores the massive amount of money that the federal government has allocated, but not spent, on broadband,” TechFreedom General Counsel James Dunstan said on Friday. After cataloging the FCC’s Rural Digital Opportunity Fund, and the recent launch of the Emergency Broadband Benefit and the Emergency Connectivity Fund, he writes: “That’s over $30 billion in unspent money right there. Then there’s the $360 billion in the last stimulus bill, potentially all of which could be used for broadband. Before Congress throws another $40 billion at broadband, lawmakers should at least figure out where all this allocated money will go, and how effective it’s been in closing the digital divide.”

Other recent federal broadband bills include South Dakota Republican Sen. John Thune’s “Telecommunications Skilled Workforce Act,” which aims to address the workforce needs in the telecom sector. Among other things, it would have the FCC establish an interagency working group designed to develop recommendations to ensure that workforce demands are met. Additionally, Sen. Catherine Cortez Masto, D-Nevada, introduced the “Connected Rural Schools Act” designed to expand access to broadband services in rural counties. In addition to her infrastructure bill, Klobuchar also put forward the “Measuring the Economic Impact of Broadband Act of 2021” in February. This bill would require the Secretary of Commerce to assess the impact of broadband deployment on the U.S. economy.

And there are even more measures on the state level, where 260 bills have been introduced regarding rural unserved and underserved communities. These include measures addressing funding, mapping, digital literacy, municipal broadband, taxes, infrastructure and more.


House Democrat Introduces Bill to Add Local Parks to E-Rate Program

The Technology in the Parks Act would also put parks in line for used computers and equipment from federal agencies.



Screenshot of Rep. Danny Davis, D-Illinois, at a House hearing on November 15.

WASHINGTON, December 1, 2023 – A House Democrat announced on Friday a bill that would fund broadband internet and devices for public parks.

The Technology in the Parks Act would expand the Federal Communications Commission’s E-Rate program to include local parks. That program currently provides approximately $4 billion in yearly broadband subsidies for schools and libraries through the FCC’s Universal Service Fund. Adding public parks would allow them to request government money toward the cost of internet each month.

The move is “crucial to bringing broadband access to these community spaces,” said the bill’s sponsor, Rep. Danny Davis, D-Illinois, in a statement.

In an effort to provide devices on the subsidized connection, the bill would also put parks in the U.S. General Services Administration’s Computers for Learning program. That would give parks access to computer equipment no longer being used by federal agencies. 

The bill would also tap the Department of Labor to implement a grant program for “technology training programs” in local parks.

Similar programs aimed at helping people navigate and participate in online spaces are drawing funds from other federal agencies. The Commerce Department’s $42.5 billion broadband expansion program makes room for states to fund digital literacy trainings, and its $2.75 billion Digital Equity Act programs are targeted at such efforts.

Reps. Raúl Grijalva, D-Arizona, and Bruce Westerman, R-Arkansas, introduced a similar bill on November 29 that would expand broadband in national parks managed by the federal government.

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North Carolina Releases Final Guidance on $100 Million Pole Replacement Program

Providers may receive up to $10,000 for each utility pole they replace in unserved areas.



Photo of Nate Denny, deputy secretary for broadband and digital equity at the North Carolina Department of Information Technology.

WASHINGTON, November 27, 2023 – North Carolina’s broadband office released on Monday final guidance for its $100 million pole replacement program.

The program, funded by the American Rescue Plan Act, will reimburse broadband providers for utility pole replacement costs. Expanding networks can involve attaching equipment to those utility poles. When a pole needs to be replaced to accommodate more equipment, pole owners typically pass the cost on to attachers.

Telecommunications companies have cited this extra cost as a barrier to quick broadband deployments, something utility companies dispute. The two industries have been in conflict on the issue for years, with both continuing to push the FCC to weigh in on a cost sharing regime.

North Carolina’s plan is an effort to smooth over the issue for future broadband expansion efforts, Nate Denny, the state department of information technology’s deputy secretary for broadband and digital equity, said in a statement. 

“It addresses a significant barrier to closing the digital divide in remote parts of our state,” he said.

Under the program, broadband providers can apply for 50 percent of the replacement cost for each pole replaced, up to $10,000 per pole. Pole replacement costs in unserved areas after June 1, 2021 are eligible for reimbursement. 

The program will kick off in February 2024 and accept applications from qualified providers.

The FCC has authority in 26 states over the terms of agreements between investor-owned utilities and telecom companies, which does not include publicly owned utilities or broadband providers that solely provide internet. The agency is set to vote on updated pole attachment rules at its December meeting.

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Expert Opinion

Kate Forscey: National Security and Global Success Depend Upon Prioritizing Telecom Funding

The Affordable Connectivity Program and the Rip-and-Replace program are both central funding needs for the industry.



The author of this Expert Opinion is Kate Forscey, contributing fellow for the Digital Progress Institute

With the government now funded into the new year, it’s time for Congress to take another look at its broader priorities, especially when it comes to the race with China for dominance in next-generation technologies. Whether it’s AI or cloud computing or virtual reality, if the United States is to remain competitive, we need to make secure and effective communications a priority. This means finally connecting all Americans to high-speed broadband and ensuring that our connectivity cannot be undermined by foreign adversaries.

Two popular programs are central to this goal: the Affordable Connectivity Program and the Rip-and-Replace program. Both of these programs have tremendous bipartisan, bicameral support; but both have been underfunded and now risk dying on the vine. Congress has the opportunity to fully fund these programs if it has the will to do so.

Let’s break it down.

The Affordable Connectivity Program provides low-income American families and veterans with discounts on Internet service and connectivity equipment, including higher discounts for those living on Tribal lands. With affordable broadband, more Americans can get online and be a part of the digital economy.

The ACP has been wildly successful, connecting over 21 million households to essential broadband they could otherwise not afford. And it continues to garner widespread support, with the vast majority of voters (78%) calling for its extension, including 64% of Republicans, 70% of Independents, and 95% of Democrats.

Congress provided the ACP with $14.2 billion in 2021—but funding is now running low and is projected to be fully exhausted by spring 2024. Governors, lawmakers on both sides of the aisle, public interest groups, and Internet service providers are all raising the alarm about its imminent depletion. That’s why the Biden Administration in October called on Congress to replenish the program’s coffers with an additional $6 billion.

A good start, but not the whole story. Our foreign adversaries are well known for their espionage, and while a spy balloon might get the attention, a far more insidious problem lurks in our communications networks: equipment designed and produced by Chinese suppliers Huawei and ZTE. A bipartisan Congress passed the Secure and Trusted Networks Act to eradicate national security threats such as these, but sufficient funding for the Rip and Replace program has never materialized.

Again, the Biden Administration has stepped up and identified a need for $3.1 billion to fully fund the program as a “key national security priority” in its emergency supplemental funding request. It’s a narrative we can all get on-board with: that broadband falls under the umbrella of national security as a whole. American consumers and institutions both benefit from American-built networks and increased protection at home. But communications providers can’t live up to these needs on their own.

As it stands, the responsibility to get affordable, secure connectivity programs across the finish line rests with Congress. Even with a consensus of support for these two programs, the devil is in the details of how to make the price tags palatable to enough policymakers on Capitol Hill. The key is ensuring that any changes preserve the widespread efficacy of the program that has made it popular so far.

For example, Congress could cut the cost of the ACP by limiting the additional Tribal funding to rural Tribal lands. Any such change should be grounded in an evaluation of existing need in urban areas, but could be an opportunity to ensure funds are being directed to areas of greatest need. And Congress should consider indexing the ACP to inflation. The high inflation of recent years has wreaked havoc on the budgets of consumers—and inflation-proofing the program would ensure that broadband remains affordable for all Americans even should inflation come back.

As for Rip-and-Replace, those of us urging for more funds could concede putting safeguards in place to ensure the money is being used for its intended purpose – the kind of compromise needed to get such policies across the finish line

These are just some ideas as we head into the final funding fight. Not everyone is going to be on the same page on what is and isn’t working best, but shared success starts by recognizing that we all have the same endgame. Congress must ensure that adequate funding for the ACP and Rip and Replace program are included in any year-end spending package. We have an all-too-rare opportunity to win the race for high-tech dominance—we just need to provide the resources.

Kate Forscey is a contributing fellow for the Digital Progress Institute and principal and founder of KRF Strategies LLC. She has served as senior technology policy advisor for Congresswoman Anna G. Eshoo and policy counsel at Public Knowledge. This piece is exclusive to Broadband Breakfast.

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

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