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.

House Democrats Prod NTIA Chief on Their Broadband Infrastructure Priorities
Rep. Frank Pallone (D-New Jersey) photographed May 15, 2019 at the US Capitol in Washington, DC. (M. Scott Mahaskey/Politico)

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.

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