The bipartisan infrastructure bill passed by the Senate Tuesday directs $65 billion toward extending broadband networks to people who can’t access them or afford them, along with significant investments into transportation and utilities. While the bill defines broadband service as a modest 100 megabits per second for downloads and 20mbps for uploads, it also contains several meaningful protections that will benefit all kinds of broadband consumers.
The centerpiece of the bill’s broadband investment allocates $40 billion to states, which will then work with localities and ISPs to improve networks. The funds will be administered by the National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA) within the Department of Commerce.
“The infrastructure bill acknowledges the crucial role that states play in expanding broadband access,” says Kathryn de Wit, who leads the broadband access initiative at The Pew Charitable Trusts.
The bill’s language reflects the idea that the broadband situation varies widely across the country, and that state governments are best positioned to know where the gaps are. But here’s the catch: Any broadband provider that takes the government handout will be required to offer a low-cost tier of service (satisfying the defined speed requirements) in the markets they serve in the state.
The bill also reinstitutes what consumer advocates call the Broadband Nutrition Label, which requires broadband providers to be clear about the speed and reliability of the service tiers they sell.
The COVID-19 pandemic changed everything in the broadband debate. The bipartisan support behind the broadband provisions in the infrastructure bill reflects a new understanding in Washington of how much of the life and work of Americans relies on fast and affordable broadband service.
How the $65 billion will be used
Approximately $14 billion of the bill’s money will go toward making permanent the “Emergency Broadband Benefit,” which was originally passed as part of the December COVID-19 relief package. The permanent benefit would subsidize $30 of a qualifying household’s monthly broadband cost.
The bill also earmarks $2.75 billion for implementing the Digital Equity Act (originally introduced in April 2019 by Senator Patty Murray (D-WA)), which provides money to states to develop plans to make sure at-risk, disadvantaged, and vulnerable communities have affordable internet connections. Part of the money would be used to provide grants to local governments, nonprofits, and private sector entities to fund basic digital skills training, as well as access to connected devices for people who don’t have them.
Early on in the process of writing the infrastructure bill, some Republicans disputed the idea that such benefits should be considered “infrastructure.” But the viewpoint of progressives—that fast internet is pointless if people lack the skills or equipment to use it—eventually won out.
“[The bill] includes funds for broadband adoption and affordability, reflecting findings from Pew and others that achieving universal broadband access—and ensuring communities benefit from those connections when they’re available—will take more than building broadband networks,” de Wit says.
It also contains $1 billion for enabling the build-out of “middle mile” broadband infrastructure, which provides the bridge between the internet backbone and local “last mile” connections that bring service to each household. Investment in the middle mile is expected to help defray the costs of last mile deployment. It also provides the trunk lines for institutions such as schools, government buildings, healthcare facilities, and libraries that need to send large amounts of data through the network.
Two billion will go to the USDA’s ReConnect program, which provides loans and grants for construction, improvement, or acquisition of facilities and equipment needed to provide broadband service in eligible rural areas.
Finally, the bill allocates $600 million to help states and localities create new ways to finance broadband projects.
Debates over definitions
One of the loudest debates over the bill’s language concerned its definition of broadband service. Many Republicans wanted service of only 25mbps for downloads and 3mbps for uploads (the current FCC definition) to qualify as “broadband.” Some progressives insisted that the definition should be 1 gigabit per second for downloads, reflecting the likely speed requirements of future internet services. Eventually the authors of the bill landed on a definition of 100mbps for downloads and 20mbps for uploads—a measured victory for Big ISP lobbyists.
There was also significant debate over whether the government should direct funds to municipal broadband projects (such as a local power authority that adds internet access to its list of services) as a way of bringing affordable broadband to more people. The Senate bill, however, doesn’t explicitly address muni broadband, to the disappointment of some progressive groups and muni broadband advocates.
But the bill does include language that might protect local or regional muni broadband projects. It prohibits states from preventing local broadband projects from applying for federal broadband infrastructure funds. The bill requires states to include a five-year action plan with their funding applications to the NTIA, and that plan must show how the state will cooperate with local and regional government to extend networks and service.
It’s unclear if the bill, if it becomes law, will supersede state laws, such as North Carolina’s, that prohibit publicly-owned broadband projects. Ultimately, the bill may encourage partnerships between municipalities and private ISPs to build and manage networks.
Now, the House
The infrastructure bill, including the broadband provisions, will face a final test in the House of Representatives this fall when members return from their summer break. House members will likely want to put their own stamp on the bill.
They may renew the debate over the speed requirements in the definition of broadband service, one person who had spoken with members of Congress tells me. They may challenge the idea of the NTIA acting as the main administrator of the broadband infrastructure funds. There may be questions about the legal and financial mechanisms by which funds are distributed.
But the main themes of the bill—tens of billions of dollars to the states to direct a new generation of broadband construction targeting the underserved—will very likely remain intact. There’s pressure on representatives of both parties to forgo political squabbling and bring federal broadband funding back to their home districts.