Exclusive Drew Clark Column: Will the Broadband Infrastructure Deal Hold?

Many in Washington aren’t holding their breath for the broadband infrastructure deal to collapse.

Exclusive Drew Clark Column: Will the Broadband Infrastructure Deal Hold?
Screenshot of Jade Piros de Carvalho, director of the Kansas Office of Broadband Development, taken from BBLO event.

WASHINGTON, July 2, 2021 – The bipartisan infrastructure agreement that President Joe Biden announced on June 24 is still standing. But many in Washington aren’t holding their breath before the deal is left to collapse.

On the macro level, the broader political problem is one of Biden’s own making. Initially, he said that he would refuse to sign any infrastructure bill that was not handed over to him along with a budget resolution. Though he has since walked back these statements, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., has threatened to sink the effort, saying, “Let me be really clear on this: We will not take up a bill in the House until the Senate passes the bipartisan bill and a reconciliation bill. If there is no bipartisan bill, then we’ll just go when the Senate passes a reconciliation bill.”

On the broadband level, the negotiations don’t even appear to have begun: We know that the bipartisan group came together. The group includes Democratic moderates like Sen. Joe Manchin of West Virginia and Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona, and Republican negotiators Rob Portman of Ohio and Mitt Romney of Utah. We know that they have agreed to $65 billion in funds for broadband.

But what we don’t know is this: How will those funds be spent? Will there be a national competition for grant applications along the lines of the 2009 American Recovery and Reinvestment Act?

Will the funds instead go to the states in the form of block grants, as appears the focus of the Broadband Reform and Investment to Drive Growth in the Economy (BRIDGE) Act, introduced by Sens. Michael Bennet, D-Colo., Angus King, I-Maine, and Portman? Will all the funds go to a big reverse-auction of the sort contemplated by the Accessible, Affordable Internet for All Act of House Majority Whip James Clyburn, D-S.C.?

Is $65 billion too little, too much, or just right?

Since the deal was announced eight days ago, some broadband experts have condemned the bill’s spending as insufficient. Those more resigned to reality say that anything – or at least $65 billion – is better than nothing.

Biden had originally proposed $100 billion for broadband infrastructure as part of his “American Jobs Plan” introduced on March 31. That proposal has never been reduced to legislative language, although its draft principles included promoting higher broadband speeds, encouraging municipalities to get in broadband, and obtaining 100 percent coverage by 2030.

Republicans initially proposed a $20 billion counteroffer. That was widely seen as a non-starter.

Now that there is a deal in principle at $65 billion, former Federal Communications Commissioner Mignon Clyburn was less than enthused. Clyburn, who is Co-Chair of the competitive trade group INCOMPAS’ “BroadLand Broadband Campaign,” said that Congress must “go big and bold, or get stuck with old and slow.”

Speaking about the compromise in Holyoke, Massachusetts Democratic Sen. Ed Markey stopped short of condemning it. But he said, “It is just a fraction of what we need to do. We have to think big, think bold, and match the scale of these problems.” And during a town hall meeting in Worcester, Markey stated that he hoped that the $100 billion broadband spending figure would be reestablished during the bill’s reconciliation process.

There’s that big picture political issue again! In fact, Markey has previously condemned bipartisan efforts. In May 2021,, he said that Republicans “have shown no willingness whatsoever to negotiate in good faith with Democrats to confront the intersecting crises we face.”

Tempering expectations about a $65 billion broadband boom

The Electronic Frontier Foundation’s Ernesto Falcon argued that the most important component of Joe Biden’s original plan was to finance universal broadband coverage, ensuring that every American has access to the internet.

Adie Tomer, a fellow at the Metropolitan Policy Program with the Brookings Institution, called the bill a “massive step in the right direction toward making long-term investments in American infrastructure.” But he said that somewhere between 50 and 75 percent of Americans will be covered by $65 billion.

Others, including critics in the cable and fixed wireless industries, have argued that to make the most of the $65 billion, broadband advocates should temper their expectations about the technologies that will be deployed.

“We can close the gap significantly, but some of the ambitions of policymakers might be too much for $65 billion,” said Ross Lieberman, senior vice president of America’s Communications Association.

The Wireless Internet Service Providers Association was one of the few trade associations to release a statement saying something – anything! – about the deal. They called it “historic.” But the trade group representing fixed wireless providers encouraged policy makers to focus efforts on getting unserved areas connected, rather than improving service in areas with some, albeit poor, connections.

WISPA has had a long-standing criticism with the current administration’s apparent implication that it wants fiber networks that are “future proof” WISPA Chairman Mark Radabaugh called this a “false economy,” in a blog post for WISPA.

Policy issues may be bigger than the billion-dollar price tag

As it stands now, however, remarkably little is known about the bipartisan framework beside the price tag.

How will the funds be disbursed? Will higher broadband speed be required? Will fiber optic technologies receive an implied boost? What about municipalities: Will they be favored? Or at least, will the legislative language ultimately pre-empt states from restricting community broadband networks?

The Municipal Networks project of the Institute for Local Self Reliance highlights the role that local governments and quasi-public bodies have played in order to suit their specific broadband needs. But while the Biden administration has been vocal in its support of municipal broadband efforts, Republicans in Congress and around the country have fought for years to outlaw or minimize municipal broadband efforts.

It remains to be seen whether Biden will leave these municipal advocates jilted at the altar.

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