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House Democrats Prod NTIA Chief on Their Broadband Infrastructure Priorities

Legislators want broadband networks reach as many people as possible, but didn’t specify how NTIA should do this.

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House Energy and Commerce Committee Chairman Frank Pallone, D-N.J.

WASHINGTON, March 21, 2022 – A group of 17 Democrats fired off a missive Monday to the Commerce Department’s broadband chief reminding him that they want to make sure that federal-funded broadband networks could reach as many people as possible on an affordable basis.

However, the legislators did not specify how Commerce’s National Telecommunications and Information Administration should specifically do this. Neither does the legislation. The concept of what is “affordable” has been popping up during NTIA rule-making sessions, with commenters asking the NTIA help them with a definition. Participants in state rule-makings, such as in California, have also asked state rule-makers to provide some guidance as to what’s affordable.

“To provide the most possible help to those struggling to afford broadband service, we urge you to make the low-cost offering requirement in the BEAD program as widely available as feasible,” wrote the 17 Congressional Democrats who sit on the House Energy and Commerce Committee.

The $65 billion broadband provisions of the Infrastructure, Investment and Jobs Act requires broadband grant recipients to offer at least one “low-cost” broadband option for eligible households. But at the same time, the NTIA is forbidden to regulate the rates that internet service providers set.

The legislation also provides $14.2 billion for the Affordable Connectivity Program, which permanently replaced the Emergency Broadband Benefit established by the Consolidated Appropriations Act. The ACP provides a $30 monthly subsidy to eligible households for their Internet subscriptions. But the program has experienced lower enrollment rates than expected in most states. The benefit is available to households within 200 percent of the poverty line.

The House Energy and Commerce Democrats also emphasized that they think the issues of digital inclusion, competition, “high capacity networks,” and community engagement are important for the NTIA to focus on.

The NTIA is expected to issue its notice of IIJA-related notice of funding opportunity sometime in May and working on its related rule-making processes. It is currently holding a series IIJA technical assistance NOFO Webinars through May.

Sarah Lai Stirland is the Director of Digital Community at Broadband.Money. Sarah previously worked with Breakfast Media's CEO, Editor and Publisher Drew Clark at National Journal's Technology Daily. She has covered business, technology, government and civic engagement, finance, and telecommunications and tech policy from New York, Washington and San Francisco. Her work has appeared in Personal Democracy Media's Civic Hall, Wired, Red Herring, and Portfolio.com. She's also a radio and podcast producer, and she's worked at KALW Public radio in San Francisco. She's a native of London and Hong Kong, and is currently based in the Bay Area.

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In State of the Union Address, Joe Biden Underlines Importance of ‘Buy America’ Rules for Broadband

President links longstanding provision of federal law, strengthened in Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act, to ‘fiber optic cables’

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Pool photo of Joe Biden at Tuesday's State of the Union by Jacquelyn Martin

WASHINGTON, February 8, 2023 – President Joe Biden underlined the importance of ”made in America” rules to the re-vitalization of the country’s physical and internet infrastructure in his State of the Union address on Tuesday.

Bringing high-tech industry and more modern infrastructure to America emerged as an early theme of the president’s annual address to Congress. Biden highlighted historic federal government investments in broadband and other infrastructure, and the CHIPS and Science Act, major bipartisan legislation passed last year that subsidized American-made semiconductors.

Join the Broadband Breakfast Live Online event, The Build America, Buy America Law’s Impact on Infrastructure on Wednesday, February 8, 2023, at 12 Noon ET.

The 73-minute address, Biden’s longest, covered many topics and even included some moments of partisan back-and-forth with Republicans in the chamber, who took control of the House of Representatives last month.

The emphasis on “made in America,” domestic revitalization, and competition with China redounded throughout the speech.

“America used to make nearly 40% of the world’s chips,” Biden explained early in the address, part of a Constitutional requirement for the president to report to Congress annually.

“But in the last few decades, we lost our edge and we’re down to producing only 10%. We all saw what happened during the pandemic when chip factories overseas shut down.”

What to Know About Build America, Buy America Provisions in the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law: Will providers be required to use equipment that is not readily available within the United States?

Biden linked the shutdown of foreign factories to inflation and other woes: Because today’s cars require up to 3,000 chips a piece, “American automakers couldn’t make enough cars because there weren’t enough chips.”

“We can never let that happen again,” Biden said. “We’re making sure the supply chain for America begins in America.”

Better broadband for America, and solving supply chain woes

As in last year’s address, in which he touted anticipated U.S.-based investment by American manufacturer Intel, Biden said Tuesday, “outside of Columbus, Ohio, Intel is building semiconductor factories on a thousand acres – a literal field of dreams.”

He used these remarks about chip-production to pivot to broadband and other infrastructure.

Noting America’s decline from number 1 in the world to 13th in the world on infrastructure, Biden said that “we’re coming back because we came together to pass the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law, the largest investment in infrastructure since President Eisenhower’s Interstate Highway System.”

With the $1.7 trillion funding bill, the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act, passed in November 2021, Biden said that the nation “will put hundreds of thousands of people to work rebuilding our highways, bridges, railroads, tunnels, ports and airports, clean water, and high-speed internet across America,” including people living in urban, suburban, rural and tribal areas.

Linking American infrastructure, including on broadband, to ‘Buy American’ rules

Biden added more details to the quest to “mak[e] sure that every community has access to affordable, high-speed internet. No parent should have to drive to a McDonald’s parking lot so their kid can do their homework online.”

In the very next line, he added: “And when we do these projects, we’re going to Buy American.

“Buy American has been the law of the land since 1933. But for too long, past administrations have found ways to get around it. Not anymore.

“Tonight, I’m also announcing new standards to require all construction materials used in federal infrastructure projects to be made in America. American-made lumber, glass, drywall, fiber optic cables.”

Some observers speculated that the administration might permit a waiver of “Buy American” rules for the broadband provisions of IIJA, as the Obama administration did under the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009.

In September, that agency proposed what it described as a “limited applicability nonavailability waiver of the Buy America domestic content procurement preference as applied to recipients of middle mle grant program awards.”

The National Telecommunications and Information Administration of the Commerce Department put that waiver forward in the lead up to the September 30 deadline for $1 billion middle mile program funding.

The agency had been fielding complaints about the provision, stemming from concern that projects will be stalled or incomplete without adequate access to foreign supply.

Many had wondered whether the NTIA would take a similar stance over the much larger, $42.5 billion Broadband, Equity Access and Deployment program.

But Biden’s forceful denunciation of efforts to undercut the law might – particularly in a reference to “fiber optic infrastructure” – make it hard for the administration to do so.

Other topics including Big Tech, relations with China

In addition to bipartisan infrastructure and CHIPS Act legislation, competitiveness with China was another dominating theme in Biden’s speech.

“We’ve already created 800,000 manufacturing jobs even without this law,” referencing the CHIPS Act. “With this new law, we will create hundreds of thousands of new jobs across the country,” he said.

He also highlighted a growing theme of the administration regard to Big Tech, when he said, “we must finally hold social media companies accountable for the experiment they are running on our children for profit. And it’s time to pass bipartisan legislation to stop Big Tech from collecting personal data on kids and teenagers online, ban targeted advertising to children, and impose stricter limits on the personal data these companies collect on all of us.”

With regard to China, Biden said that he had told the nation’s president Xi Jinping that “we seek competition, not conflict.”

He added that the nation would “invest[] in American innovation, in industries that will define the future, and that China’s government is intent on dominating.”

The point, he said, was to be “Investing in our alliances and working with our allies to protect our advanced technologies so they’re not used against us.”

Reporting for this story was provided by Tim Su.

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NTIA Officials Urge Use of Agency Resources for Digital Equity Planning

Agency officials outlined helpful material for states looking to develop digital equity plans.

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Screenshot of Katarina Smiley, digital equity advisor at the NTIA

WASHINGTON, January 31, 2023 – National Telecommunications and Information Administration officials are urging states to take advantage of available resources when developing digital equity plans. 

The NTIA provides general technical assistance resources that the Commerce Department agency said both stakeholders and states will find helpful, including a list of best practices for digital inclusion activities, recommendations for preparing planning requirements, and a plan template. 

Accessing federal resources will set states on a “great path forward” to promote digital equity, said Richelle Crotty, technical assistance advisor for digital equity at an NTIA event Wednesday. 

Because stakeholder involvement is a crucial element to the program, the NTIA provides specific guidance on how to conduct accessible meetings and discuss keys to successful coalition operations.  

Stakeholder involvement cannot be overemphasized, stressed Katarina Smiley, digital equity advisor at NTIA. Communicate what the divide looks like in your community, share digital inclusion models and advocate for community research, she urged state leaders. 

The BEAD-DE Alignment Guide can help states align program requirements and coordinate activities across the NTIA’s $42.5 billion Broadband Equity, Access and Deployment Program and the Digital Equity Program. 

As part of the Infrastructure, Investment and Jobs Act, the $2.5 billion Digital Equity Program created three sub-programs to “ensure that all communities can access and use affordable, reliable high-speed Internet.” 

The first program, which is currently underway, provides $60 million for states to develop digital equity plans. The subsequent steps include $1.44 billion for implementing plans and $1.25 billion toward digital equity and inclusion activities. 

Currently, all 50 states have been awarded Digital Equity Planning Grants upwards of $4 million. Plans are required to identify the key barriers to digital equity faced by its population, measurable objectives for promoting broadband technology, steps to collaborate with key stakeholders, and a digital equity needs assessment. 

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Mayors Urged to Get Moving on State Conversations for Federal Broadband Funding

Time is running out to have cities’ voices heard at state broadband roundtables.

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Photo of Scott Woods (left) and Jase Wilson

WASHINGTON, January 18, 2023 – Representatives from a company that helps internet service providers and local governments get federal broadband money urged mayors of cities across the country Wednesday to quickly get involved in the process by actively engaging their state broadband offices or get left behind.

Scott Woods and Jase Wilson, vice president for community engagement and strategic partnerships and CEO, respectively, at Ready.net told the 91st United States Conference of Mayors in Washington that time was running out to have their voices heard at state roundtables.

Woods noted that the current version of the Federal Communications Commission’s maps are “overstated,” meaning there are inaccuracies in it. But if cities don’t have a plan or don’t come to the state broadband offices and plead their case for better connectivity, they will be left out.

The pair asked the packed conference hall at the Capitol Hilton whether they had conversations with their state broadband offices, but the vast majority did not raise their hands.

“The opportunity is now,” Wilson urged, adding the company’s Broadband.money has created a site and a broadband audit allowing mayors to get them up to speed. Broadband.money is a sponsor of Broadband Breakfast.

The National Telecommunications and Information Administration, which administers the $42.5 billion Broadband Equity, Access and Deployment program, has said that the accurate delivery of the money to connect the underconnected will be contingent on the readiness of the FCC map, which had a deadline to challenge its contents on January 13, 2023.

Each states is expected to be allocated at least $100 million by June 30, with many states receiving much, much more. After the June 30 kickoff, entities, including cities, can apply for a piece of the pie.

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