Infrastructure Bill With $65B for Broadband on Its Way to Biden

House lawmakers late Friday adopted a roughly $1.2 trillion infrastructure bill that includes $65 million for broadband deployment and access. The bipartisan 228-to-206 vote marked the final milestone for the first of two pieces in the president’s economic agenda.

According to the White House, the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act will help lower prices for internet service and help close the digital divide, so that more Americans can afford internet access. The measure, “will make high-speed internet affordable and available everywhere in America,” President Joe Biden said in a statement lauding its passage.

The bill now heads to the White House for Biden’s signature more than two months after Senate lawmakers approved it on a rare and overwhelming 69-to-30 bipartisan vote.

“No one should have to sit in a fast-food parking lot so their child can do their homework,” Biden said in an address to the nation on Saturday. According to the latest data from the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development, among 35 countries studied, the United States has the second highest broadband costs, noted the White House. Biden said: “That’s unacceptable.” 

The President said he and Vice President Kamala Harris look forward to having a formal signing ceremony soon. He wants those who worked on its passage to be able to attend, and get credit for that, which is why he didn’t hold it over the weekend.

Industry Can Exhale 

Industry associations quickly issued statements of praise after the bill’s passage. In a letter to members, the Wireless Infrastructure Association said it helped convince Congress to provide agencies with the needed flexibility to allow all broadband technologies, including mobile and fixed wireless, the opportunity to compete for funding. As a result, Congress adopted a flexible approach that will help bring connectivity to all communities.

“WIA commends the bipartisan efforts behind this monumental investment in America’s economic future, which will rely on 5G,” said WIA President/ CEO Jonathan Adelstein. “By approving funding that can include wireless broadband, Congress enabled innovative, cost-effective, and geographically appropriate mobile and fixed wireless service to connect consumers more quickly and efficiently. Now we need the Administration and states to implement the law consistent with its mandates for technological flexibility and for prioritizing applicants that can deploy faster to unserved areas, which certainly includes wireless providers.”

NATE: The Communications Infrastructure Contractors Association, praised passage of the measure as well. “For nearly 25 years, NATE has advocated that communications infrastructure projects that allow for the rapid flow of information and data are just as important as infrastructure projects providing for the flow of travel and goods,” said NATE Director of Government Relations Todd Washam. “The Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act provides historic levels of funding for several of NATE’s top legislative priorities, and it will have a significant impact on efforts to close the digital divide in rural, unserved, and underserved communities.”

What Happens Now?

Biden said Americans will start seeing the impacts of the measure in the next three to four months “when we get shovels in the ground.” That coincides with what industry experts have said. Inside Towers reported that the National Telecommunications and Information Administration, not the FCC, will distribute more than $42 billion in grants to states, to fund projects based on plans the states submit to NTIA. 

The states and NTIA must develop a way to review applications, and that will take time.  

Experts such as Blair Levin, former Chief of Staff for FCC Chairman Reed Hundt, who’s now a policy advisor to New Street Research, predicted companies could begin seeing the money at the end of the first quarter 2022 at the earliest, or in the second quarter, Inside Towers reported.   

What’s in the Bill

The bill includes about $14 billion for a new Affordable Connectivity Fund, to provide $30 subsidies to low-income Americans to help pay for internet service. Initiatives included in the bill will help provide for a skilled communications workforce and ensure transparency and accountability of federally funded broadband projects, according to NATE. Washam referenced Sen. John Thune’s (R-SD) Telecommunications Skilled Workforce provision to help the industry meet the demand for broadband. Sen. Deb Fischer’s (R-NE) amendment would require the FCC to provide maps of federally funded broadband projects, “to ensure transparency and accountability as Congress appropriates billions in funding for broadband infrastructure,” said Washam.

Projects that receive state funding must commit to providing speeds of 100 Mbps download and 20 Mbps upload, which WIA says it advocated for. Projects are also required to demonstrate resilience and priority consideration is given to projects that can be completed faster. Both factors favor wireless buildout.

Also included in the broadband allocation is:

  • $2.75 billion for Digital Equity Act programs;
  • $2 billion for NTIA’s Tribal Broadband Connectivity Fund;
  • $2 billion in support for rural areas under the USDA ReConnect Program at RUS;
  • $1 billion for Middle Mile projects; and,
  • $600 million for state Private Activity Bonds for rural broadband.

WIA says it supported an amendment by Thune and Sen. Jon Tester (D-MT) that will form an interagency working group to provide recommendations to Congress on how to best address workforce needs of the telecommunications industry, particularly for 5G deployment, with a focus on apprenticeships.  

By Leslie Stimson, Inside Towers Washington Bureau Chief

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