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Commerce Secretary Raimondo Emphasizes Affordability, Fiber in Infrastructure Bill Press Briefing

Raimondo said to expect relatively quick turnaround on broadband affordability and job creation, longer timeline on fiber buildouts.

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Commerce Secretary Gina Raimondo

WASHINGTON, November 11, 2021 – At a White House press briefing on Tuesday, Commerce Secretary Gina Raimondo emphasized broadband affordability and fiber infrastructure when speaking about the $65 billion in broadband funds allocated in the Infrastructure, Investment and Jobs Act, which passed the House Friday night.

While a chunk of the money will be at the discretion of the states, which will determine the kinds technology for their region, Raimondo mentioned fiber several times during the conference. She noted that “laying fiber across America” will “take time” – specifying that burying the cable in difficult topography like mountains could take years – but it will also be “creating jobs at every step of the way.”

Raimondo, who’s press conference represented another victory lap for the administration since the passage of the measure on Friday night, gave an idea of what her department expects to see from the bill, which had already passed the Senate in August and is now on President Joe Biden‘s desk for signing: a relatively quick turnaround on broadband affordability and job creation, but a longer timeline for fiber buildouts.

Experts that Broadband Breakfast has hosted have largely agreed about the importance of fiber, but some have also suggested that fixed-wireless and other technologies, like low earth orbit satellites, will be important to fill any leftover, hard-to-reach areas.

She said her department has been “planning for months” to tackle the bill. The National Telecommunications and Information Administration, an agency of the Commerce Department, will receive some $42 billion of the broadband money to distribute.

“It will not be easy. This will be technically difficult,” Raimondo said, according to a transcript. “It’s an implementation challenge. But it is necessary. It is necessary.”

Each state will receive a base $100 million, Raimondo confirmed, with the remaining money allocated “based on need, based on how many underserved households there are in that state.” She said the department will be working closely with, and using the maps of, the Federal Communications Commission to ensure the money doesn’t go to overbuilding. (The FCC is currently going through an overhaul of the mapping system that led to the agency revisiting the outcome of the Rural Digital Opportunity Fund reverse auction.)

She also said there will be a “tremendous amount of federal oversight and transparency” on state use of the money, saying the department will have “very strict criteria to make sure that we achieve the goals of affordability and access.” It is expected that state implementation of the funds will begin “well into next year.”

The department, Raimondo said, has been speaking with governors, mayors and tribal leaders about implementing the plan, suggesting it will “significantly ramp up that engagement” now that the bill is official. The bill will also ask each state to provide the government with a plan for implementation of new internet infrastructure to ensure all residents can receive high-speed internet.

The bill will offer grants to states for broadband data analysis and mapping, low-cost broadband in multifamily residential buildings and other broadband expansion efforts.

Impact on jobs

Raimondo said it was crucial for the bill to have money for workforce training, as some have urged Congress to come up with a plan to address underskilled labor when it comes to broadband expansion.

“Today, we don’t have enough trained people. No, we don’t,” Raimondo said in response to a press question. “But some of this money will be used for workforce training so that we can train folks and, in the process of doing that, diversify, you know, the ranks of electricians and technicians and folks who are, you know, deploying the fiber in America.”

The Commerce Secretary later said that, “I promise you this: A year from now, many, many people will be working in high-quality jobs because of this package.”

Funding

Decades-Old Legislation Can Play Supplement to Federal Broadband Infrastructure Money

The Community Reinvestment Act was expanded to include broadband investments in 2016.

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Photo of Jordana Barton-Garcia (far right)

CLEVELAND, June 27, 2022 – A decades-old piece of legislation can play an important and supplemental role to federal grants for broadband infrastructure, said panelists at the Pew Charitable Trust Broadband Access Summit Wednesday.

The Community Reinvestment Act was passed in 1977 to address redlining – the practice of denying financial services to individuals or groups based on where they are located, often along racial or soci-economic lines. The law encourages banks to make community development loans and investments in low- and moderate-income communities, rural, and tribal communities.

The legislation expanded to include investments in broadband infrastructure in 2016, after broadband was deemed an essential community service, said Jordana Barton-Garcia, principal of the social enterprise at Barton-Garcia Advisors. That means that it could play a key role in filling some of the broadband gaps, she said, as the federal government moves to distribute billions to the states under the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act.

In response to the pandemic, banks can now qualify to receive CRA credit for broadband deployment activities, said Barton-Garcia. Activities include loans, investments, and services that support digital inclusion or affordability programs.

Banks receive CRA credit for investing in community development projects and are reviewed on their CRA performance every three years. Their scores are open to the general public. If the bank receives a negative rating, it may prevent the bank from opening new branches and the bank will be expected to correct the rating.

Currently, the Federal Reserve is seeking comments on a joint agency proposal to strengthen and modernize CRA regulations.

A report published by the Federal Reserve Bank of Dallas in 2016 laid the groundwork for broadband to be included under the CRA. “Under the CRA, infrastructure investment includes facilitating the construction, expansion, improvement, maintenance or operation of essential infrastructure…  broadband is now a basic infrastructure needed in all communities.”

The CRA also includes workforce development investments, digital literacy projects, and technical assistance for small businesses.

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Funding

Researching the Impact of Digital Equity Funding Starts With Community Collaboration

Understanding the funding impact will ‘begin with the NTIA’s mandate to work with community partners.’

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Photo of Fallon Wilson

CLEVELAND, June 23, 2022 – Formulating research questions and making data readily accessible will contribute to the impact of federal and state digital equity funding, said experts speaking at the Pew Charitable Trusts’ Broadband Access Summit Wednesday.

It is essential to “formulate the research questions with communities” so that researchers will understand what is of interest and importance to the residents and local leaders, said Nicole Marwell from the University of Chicago,

Marwell said it is “critical” for researchers to consider how to “ask questions that bring answers that are more relevant for the community partners and then for [researchers] to try and figure out a way to make that interesting for a research audience.”

“We can demystify research,” said Fallon Wilson of the #BlackTechFutures Research Institute, speaking on how researchers can effectively work with community members. When data looks friendly to local leaders, they can go directly to their state broadband offices and advocate for their specific needs in specific areas.

“The best advocates are the people who advocate for themselves,” said Wilson.

Our role as researchers can play is to make data digestible for the non-academic, said Hernan Galperin of the University of Southern California.

The National Telecommunications and Information Administration requires states to work with community leaders and partners for the funds distributed by the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act.

Wilson praised this mandate, saying that understanding the funding impact will “begin with the NTIA’s mandate to work with community partners.”

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Funding

BEAD Program Initiative Should Utilize Analysis of Affordable Connectivity Program Enrollment

Analyzing ACP enrollment can help the BEAD program solve the ‘persisting gap between deployment and subscription.’

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Photo of John Horrigan

WASHINGTON, June 16, 2022 – The National Telecommunications and Information Administration should utilize adoption data from the Affordable Connectivity Program to maximize the effectiveness of its $42.5-billion infrastructure program, according to a broadband adoption expert.

“If the federal government’s investments in broadband connectivity are to be effective, different programmatic pieces must work together,” said John Horrigan, Benton Senior Fellow and expert on technology adoption and digital inclusion, in a blog post Thursday.

Analyzing the enrollment data of the Federal Communications Commission’s ACP can help the Broadband Equity, Access and Deployment program — a $42.5 billion fund for infrastructure to be handed to the states — solve the “persisting gap between deployment and subscription” in three ways, said Horrigan.

First, examining ACP enrollment in zip codes can help target which areas within cities are unaware of ACP. Second, understanding where ACP enrollment is over-performing can “launch productive inquiry into models that may be effective – and replicable.” Third, ACP enrollment findings can help structure community outreach initiatives for digital inclusion.

“The National Telecommunications and Information Administration has emphasized that a key goal of BEAD investments in digital equity,” said Horrigan. “State planners will need all the tools they can find to work toward that goal – and analysis of ACP performance is one such tool.”

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