Nov 8, 2021 - Technology

Infrastructure bill includes billions for broadband

Illustration: Shoshana Gordon/Axios

The infrastructure bill heading to President Biden's desk includes $65 billion to improve high-speed internet access and affordability.

Why it matters: The pandemic proved the necessity of connectivity to participate in daily American life, and Biden's administration acknowledged that by including this funding in the infrastructure package.

By the numbers: The funding is aimed towards building high-speed internet networks, helping low-income families pay for service and digital equity programs.

  • $42.45 billion in grants to states for broadband projects, which can range from network deployment to data collection to help determine areas that lack service.
  • $14.2 billion to provide a $30-a-month voucher to low-income Americans to pay for internet service. It will replace the current $50-a-month Emergency Broadband Benefit program, offering less money monthly, but increasing the number of those eligible.
  • $2.75 billion for digital inclusion and equity projects, such as improving digital literacy or online skills for seniors.
  • $2 billion each for a rural broadband construction program called ReConnect, run by USDA, and to the Tribal Broadband Connectivity Program run by the Commerce Department's National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA).
  • $1 billion to build so-called "middle mile" infrastructure to connect local providers to larger internet access points.
  • $600 million for private activity bonds to finance broadband deployment projects in rural areas.

Between the lines: Early fears from cable and telecom companies that Biden's broadband plan would lead to government-backed competitors in their service footprints or price regulation went unrealized.

  • "It recognizes the private model of broadband deployment in the United States, with targeted public support in unserved or hard to reach communities, is the key to achieving 100% connectivity," USTelecom CEO Jonathan Spalter said in a statement.

The intrigue: The power player on broadband funding will be the Commerce Department because its telecom division has a key oversight role in how the $42.45 billion in state funding will be spent.

  • Most importantly, the head of NTIA will be tasked with approving plans for the broadband grants, including reviewing low-cost service options providers will be required to offer in order to receive funding.
  • Biden recently nominated Alan Davidson to lead NTIA, and he will likely face questions about administering this funding as the Senate confirmation process proceeds.

What to watch: The infrastructure bill also highlights funding for WiFi networks in apartment buildings.

  • Nonprofit EducationSuperHighway recently launched a project proposing such networks as one solution to addressing the broadband affordability gap.

What's next: Biden's social spending bill, the Build Back Better Act, includes increased funding for Justice Department and Federal Trade Commission antitrust enforcement, more money for distance learning and $500 million to create a privacy bureau within the FTC.

  • The House is expected to take up a vote on the bill the week of Nov. 15.
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