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NTIA Axes Fiber Cables, Keeps Transport Equipment in Buy America Waiver for Middle Mile

The middle mile waiver comes ahead of the awarding of grants from the $1B program.



NTIA Administrator Alan Davidson (left), being interviewed by Broadband Breakfast Editor Drew Clark at Mountain Connect in May 2022

WASHINGTON, May 4, 2023 – The National Telecommunications and Information Administration has finalized its long-awaited exemption to domestic manufacturing laws for its $1 billion Enabling Middle Mile Broadband Infrastructure program that will see certain transport equipment exempt to facilitate the building of the networks.

The Build America, Buy America law under the Infrastructure, investment and Jobs Act requires that at least 55 percent of the cost of components funded by federal dollars be made in the United States. But the NTIA recognized that not all critical components of broadband networks are available in enough supply inside the country to build the infrastructure to meet the program’s four-year build timeline and released a proposed exemption for certain components for comment last September.

The waiver, which is dated April 19, will include broadband routing equipment, switching equipment, microwave backhaul equipment such as transceivers and antennas, optical fiber transport equipment but not fiber cable, undersea cable equipment, and telemetry routers and switches. The NTIA noted comments that said it could take a minimum of between 24 and 36 months to onshore such equipment.

The agency notably removed mention of “fiber optic cable” – which was in its initial proposal – after industry and “subsequent market research” told it that fiber cables are made in enough supply in the country.

The waiver is limited to funds provided by the NTIA between March 1, 2023, to March 1, 2024. The agency will then review the waiver every six months from when the first award is given to assess whether it should modify the scope of the exemption, it said in the waiver document. The subjects of the waiver must also report foreign sources for their equipment.

The waiver comes ahead of the middle mile award announcements expected sometime this spring.

“The Fiber Broadband Association appreciates that NTIA has issued a targeted, limited waiver for electronic and connectivity products for their Middle Mile Grant Program,” Marissa Mitrovich, vice president of public policy at the trade association, told Broadband Breakfast.

“We appreciate their thoughtfulness; this waiver reflects that they have been listening to stakeholders while simultaneously meeting their commitment to connect all Americans to fiber broadband networks and create domestic manufacturing capabilities and good paying jobs,” Mitrovich added.

The NTIA said while the Chips and Science Act — which will facilitate the domestic manufacturing of semiconductors that go into telecommunications networks — is expected to assist in meeting Buy America rules, the timeline for construction of these manufacturing plants will mean the “impact of that investment is unlikely to be realized for several years” — between three and five years by industry estimates, the agency said.

The document said commenters have urged the agency to use the middle mile waiver as a precedent for its bigger brother, the flagship $42.5-billion Broadband Equity, Access and Deployment program. The BEAD program has more flexibility when it comes to funding various parts of the network.

But in a disclaimer, the NTIA said the middle mile waiver is based on the “facts and circumstances” about the program and “does not constitute, nor should it be construed as, precedent for or a baseline for any other grant program administered by NTIA.”

The agency has been pressured by the industry to include a waiver for certain components using money from the BEAD program, the funds from which are expected to be delivered to the states by June 30. Industry participants have said that it will be difficult to complete BEAD builds by the required five-year timeline without a waiver for components they say are made largely overseas.

The agency has signaled over the past several months that it will be difficult getting Buy America waivers for the BEAD program. Any future BEAD waiver, according to a top Commerce Department advisor, will be product-specific.

Managing Editor Ahmad Hathout has spent the last half-decade reporting on the Canadian telecommunications and media industries for leading publications. He started the scoop-driven news site to make Canadian telecom news more accessible and digestible. Follow him on Twitter @ackmet.

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Experts Suggest Measures to Protect Affordable Connectivity Program at Senate Hearing

Under consideration: Opening the Universal Service Fund to contributions from broadband and Big Tech companies.



WASHINGTON, September 28, 2023 – A broadband association asked Congress last week to open the Universal Service Fund to contributions from broadband and Big Tech revenues to allow the umbrella fund to absorb and support the Affordable Connectivity Program.

The industry is concerned that the $14-billion ACP program, which discounts monthly services for low-income Americans and those on tribal lands, is going to run out of money by early next year. Meanwhile, it is universally agreed that the Universal Service Fund, which includes four high-cost broadband programs, is struggling to maintain its roughly $8-billion annual pace without a diversification of its revenue sources.

Jonathan Spalter, president and CEO of USTelecom, told the Communications and Technology subcommittee studying the future of rural broadband on September 21 that Congress could both support the sustainability of the USF and the ACP by forcing contributions from broadband and Big Tech revenues.

The idea is that the extra revenue would solve the USF sustainability question by allowing the fund to continue to support the existing four programs under its purview, while also allowing it to adopt the ACP program, hence removing that program from reliance on Congress for money.

“We can have Congress give the FCC the authorities that it requires to be able to expand the contribution base, integrating the ACP within USF program, and thereby allowing the potentially out of control contribution factor that will potentially bog down the viability and longevity of the Universal Service Fund mechanisms to go down,” Spalter said.

“And in so doing it can expand the contribution base sufficiently to allow not only broadband but importantly the dominant Big Tech companies to participate so that we would effectively fuse the Affordable Connectivity Program with [high-cost program] Lifeline and do so in a way that would actually not require appropriated dollars from Congress.”

The ACP currently has around 21 million Americans signed up, but the FCC says many more are eligible. The commission has been allocating money to outreach groups to market the subsidy program.

While some have argued that the Federal Communications Commission could unilaterally expand the contribution base of the USF, the commission has elected to wait for Congress to make the requisite legislative reforms to give it that authority.

Forcing Big Tech companies, which rely on the internet to deliver their products, has been an idea tossed around by experts and promoted by Federal Communications Commissioner Brendan Carr. Meanwhile, forcing broadband revenues to contribute to the fund has also received good support.

The concern for the ACP program is that the internet service providers rely on the $14 billion to continue to offer discounts.

“With funding set to be depleted early next year, initial notices of service termination could be out during the height of the holiday season in December – that’s a present none of our constituents deserve to receive,” said Congresswoman Doris Matsui, D-Calif.  

“Poverty is everywhere, but higher in rural America, in our region the reason most people can’t adopt service is due to lack of affordability, this impacts more households than lack of infrastructure alone,” said Sara Nichols, senior planner of the Land of Sky Regional Council of Government.

“It’s a program we simply can’t afford to lose,” added Nichols.

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FCC Looking to Open 6 GigaHertz Band to Very Low Power Devices

The Federal Communications Commission first took comments on the proposal in 2020.



Photo of FCC Chairwoman Jessica Rosenworcel by New America.

WASHINGTON, September 28, 2023 – The Federal Communications Commission announced on Wednesday that it will consider at its October meeting a proposal to allow very low power devices to operate in the 6 Gigahertz Wi-Fi band.

The proposal would open up 850 megahertz of the 6 GHz band – about two thirds of the band’s spectrum – for very low power, or VLP, operation. 

That means VLP devices could use radio waves set to frequencies in the allowed range to communicate with wireless routers. The commission first opened up the 6GHz range for unlicensed Wi-Fi connectivity use, meaning device manufacturers do not need specific permission from the FCC to use those frequencies, in 2020.

FCC Chairwoman Jessica Rosenworcel said the proposed addition of VLP devices to that band would help meet growing demand for unlicensed spectrum.

Wi-Fi connectivity over unlicensed spectrum is the oxygen that sustains much of our everyday lives,” she said.

The proposed order does not go as far as some Wi-Fi advocates wanted. More than a dozen groups signed a letter urging the FCC to open all 1,200 MHz of the 6GHz band for VLP use, citing a desire to keep future technologies accessible.

The proposed report and order, circulated Wednesday to commissioners, puts off enacting rules on allowing low power devices to use slightly more power while indoors, another change the advocates wanted to see, instead opting to take more public comments on the move. 

It would also seek comment on expanding VLP use to the entirety of the band, something the FCC took comments on when it first opened the band for unlicensed use in 2020.

Apple has been urging the FCC to open the band to more mobile applications, such as smartphones, watches and headphones. At 16 times lower power than the standard Wi-Fi, VLP “greatly reduces the risk of harmful interference,” the company said in a presentation to the commission earlier this year. 

The commissioners will vote on the proposal at FCC’s open meeting on October 19, barring a government shutdown.

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Universal Service

Federal Broadband Subsidies Essential for Long-Term BEAD Success: Experts

It’s not just about building networks, but providing affordability through programs like the ACP.



Scott Woods of, Angie Kronenberg of INCOMPAS, Mike Romana of NTCA and David Bronston of Phillips Lytle

WASHINGTON, September 26, 2023 – The survival of federal broadband subsidies will be essential for the success of the Broadband Equity, Access and Deployment program, expert panelists said at the Broadband Breakfast BEAD Implementation Summit on Friday.

Broadband providers building infrastructure with funding from the $42.5 billion BEAD program will be required to participate in the Affordable Connectivity Program. The ACP, comprised of $14 billion set aside by the 2021 Infrastructure, Investment and Jobs Act, provides monthly internet subsidies of $30 for low-income households and $75 for residents of tribal lands and in high-cost areas. 

Federal Communications Commission Chairwoman Jessica Rosenworcel testified to the Senate on September 19 that the money is set to dry up as early as April 2024.

That could prevent people from being able to access the networks built with BEAD funds, said Angie Kronenberg, president of tech trade group INCOMPAS.

“That’s before the network has even been built,” she said of the estimated end date. “We really, really must have this issue addressed.”

A coalition of 45 members of Congress signed in August a letter to House and Senate leadership urging them to find money for the ACP in the appropriations bill that will fund the government for the next year. Congress is likely to miss the October 1 deadline for that bill and trigger a government shutdown.

The Universal Service Fund, which spends roughly $8 billion annually to fund four internet subsidy programs, also has an uncertain future. Lawmakers are looking to change its funding mechanism – currently a tax on voice providers – and conservative groups are challenging the fund in court.

Panelists said the USF subsidies, which help low-income households, healthcare providers, schools, and libraries, in addition to rural providers in expensive-to-serve areas, will be essential for ensuring consistent, long-term access to broadband infrastructure built with BEAD and other federal funds.

“Getting people onto the network is the goal here, it’s not just planting a flag or ‘mission accomplished’ banner for building the network,” said Mike Romano, executive vice president of the Rural Broadband Association.

Scott Woods, president of public-private partnerships at broadband grant company, agreed that expanding networks is only part of the goal for the BEAD program.

“We could spend $200 trillion on infrastructure,” he said, “but if the people it’s designed to impact can’t afford it, it’s stranded assets.”

The discussion was moderated by David Bronston, special counsel at Phillips Lytle, LLP.

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