Exclusive Drew Clark Column on Broadband Infrastructure Legislation

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

Exclusive Drew Clark Column on Broadband Infrastructure Legislation

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.

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