Last month, Congress took a major step forward on one of the most salient issues in our country: infrastructure. The $1.2 trillion bipartisan package passed by the Senate in early August is the biggest investment in our roads, bridges, transit and ports since the creation of the interstate highway system under President Dwight Eisenhower in the 1950s. These resources will be a propelling force for innovators and disrupters, helping entrepreneurs get their goods and services to their customers more efficiently.
Perhaps more important than asphalt and concrete to the technology economy, the legislation also provides critically needed resources to deploy broadband on a massive scale, supercharging these “superhighways” of the internet. The COVID-19 pandemic changed everything in the broadband debate and this bill reflects the new understanding in Washington of how much of the life and work of all Americans relies on fast and affordable broadband service.
The bill directs $65 billion toward extending broadband networks to people who can’t access them or afford them, with the centerpiece being a $40 billion allocation to states. From there, officials will then work with localities and internet service providers to improve networks. The funds will be administered by the National Telecommunications and Information Administration within the Department of Commerce.
This approach reflects the belief in Congress that the broadband situation varies widely across the country, and that state governments are best positioned to know where the gaps are. Importantly, any broadband provider that takes the government handout will be required to offer a low-cost tier of service in the markets it serves in the state. This is just one of several protections included in the bill that will benefit consumers. 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.
Almost $14 billion in the bill is dedicated to making the “Emergency Broadband Benefit” permanent. This program was originally passed as part of the December COVID-19 relief package and would subsidize $30 of a qualifying household’s monthly broadband cost.
The bill also earmarks $2.75 billion for implementing the Digital Equity Act, which provides money to states to develop plans to make sure at-risk, disadvantaged and vulnerable communities have affordable internet connections. 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.
And $2 billion will go to the Department of Agricuture‘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.
Debate over the infrastructure bill, including the broadband provisions, now moves to the House of Representatives, where members may try to put their own stamp on the bill before an expected vote sometime on or before Sept. 27. Hopefully, it will be signed by President Joe Biden before the end of this year.