Telecommunications industry groups and digital equity advocates reacted positively Monday to high-speed internet provisions in the Senate’s bipartisan infrastructure bill.
The massive 2,702-page bill, introduced late Sunday night as a substitute amendment to the legislative vehicle, includes about $65 billion in spending for broadband.
And though the bottom line for broadband spending is significantly lower than the $100 billion originally sought by President Joe Biden and congressional Democrats, almost everyone has found something to like.
Industry groups, for example, were quick to praise the lower overall funding level. The call for $100 billion in broadband spending had led to some concerns of “overbuilding.”
“Early proposals from the administration indicated an intent to transform broadband into an old-fashioned utility through massive, wasteful overbuilding,” said Doug Brake, director of broadband policy at the Information Technology and Innovation Foundation. “Significant improvements … have brought it much closer to something ITIF could support.”
The bulk of funding for high-speed internet would go toward broadband implementation grants.
The grants would total about $42.5 billion that states and territories could use for broadband projects in unserved areas, with 10 percent of the funds set aside for projects in “high-cost” areas. The figure is about $2.5 billion more than what had been in earlier drafts of the agreement circulated last week.
Advocates who say digital equity programs are key to closing the “digital divide,” which is especially damaging to low-income families and racial minorities, are applauding the inclusion of $2.75 billion to implement the Digital Equity Act. The bill would direct the Commerce Department to award broadband grants in historically underserved communities.
“Just the idea that an infrastructure bill is including funding for digital equity and adoption is big,” said Heather Gate, the vice president of digital inclusion at Connected Nation, a Bowling Green, Ky.-based national nonprofit.
Gate said she would have preferred a greater investment in digital equity, but the $2.75 billion is “significant considering we’re coming from zero for equity funding.”
The digital equity funding would be awarded via two new Commerce Department grant programs: the State Digital Equity Capacity Grant Program, which would receive $1.5 billion, and the Digital Equity Competitive Grant Program, which would get $1.25 billion.
The first of the two programs would disburse funding based on a state’s population, demographics and current broadband availability. The second would provide grants to specific projects aimed at digital equity and inclusion.
And $5 billion more would be authorized for state grants that would go toward “middle mile” broadband projects to connect networks operated by major providers and smaller, rural networks operated by smaller providers.
The “middle mile” provisions won plaudits from the Wireless Infrastructure Association, which said the money could be used to finance signal towers in rural or underserved areas where they would otherwise be too expensive to build.
“This should be a boon for tower builders,” said the group’s president, Jonathan Adelstein. “Best of all, it includes an explicit priority we’ve advocated strongly, which is leveraging existing towers and other infrastructure rather than wasting taxpayer resources by overbuilding.”
The bill also includes $2 billion for the Tribal Broadband Connectivity Program and $2 billion for rural broadband.
“This unparalleled commitment will help community-based and Tribal providers of broadband bring more connectivity to Americans who lack internet access and enable those who cannot afford access to bridge that gap with government support,” said Mike Wendy, a spokesperson for the Wireless Internet Service Providers Association.
Negotiators also agreed to expand the Emergency Broadband Benefit Program, which Congress established in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic to help low-income families afford their monthly internet bill. The bill would extend the program past the end of the public health emergency but would lower the monthly stipend from $50 to $30.
The bill also includes provisions increasing price transparency and ending the practice of “digital redlining,” which has resulted in lower-income areas being served slower internet speeds for higher prices. Both provisions were key priorities for the Biden administration.
“Broadband internet is necessary for Americans to do their jobs, to participate equally in school learning, health care, and to stay connected,” the White House said last week. The deal “ensures every American has access to reliable high-speed internet.”