How much funding states will get remains up in the air
Following months of negotiations, President Joe Biden’s $1.2 trillion Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act passed with bipartisan support in early November. The bill included $65 billion to improve the nation’s broadband infrastructure.
“It’s an unprecedented amount of money to come in at one time for broadband,” says Mike Romano, NTCA senior vice president of industry affairs and business development. “Before the COVID-19 pandemic, and especially during it, we’ve seen people understand how important broadband is for success.”
As the funding becomes available, rural broadband providers may be able to answer the call to extend high-speed networks into new areas.
“This is another positive step to help close the broadband gap across rural America,” says Levoy Knowles, Tennesse Broadband Association (TNBA) government affairs director. “It’s an incredible opportunity for TNBA members to expand the reach of their networks.”
Breaking Down the Bill
The bulk of the funding in the bill provides $42.45 billion in grants to states for broadband projects. Another $14.2 billion will provide a $30-a-month voucher to low-income Americans to help pay for internet service. The remaining $8 billion is split among digital inclusion efforts, the ReConnect rural broadband construction program, and other infrastructure requirements.
“While earlier versions of the bill called for higher speeds, the acceptable speed was lowered with entry-level broadband defined as 100/20 Mbps,” said Romano. “Those speeds might be possible with cable and fixed wireless providers, but the bill still offers preference for higher speed networks.”
Distributing the Money
The Commerce Department’s National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA) will rely heavily on information from states to decide how the money is distributed.
“Right now, we don’t know how much money will come to any particular state because the formulas are dependent on maps that haven’t been created yet,” says Romano. “The FCC will create maps to show what service is available in every U.S. location. They’ll then use a formula to see how many unserved/underserved and high-cost locations can receive service in a particular area, with priority being given to providers offering networks faster than 100/20 Mbps.”
Also included in discussion surrounding the bill is a focus on what’s needed going forward for the Universal Service Fund (USF).
“There’s a growing recognition that you don’t just want to build a network,” says Romano. “It’s not a road where you build it and then come back in a few years to patch potholes. You’re delivering services people need every day with a broadband network. It was wise of Congress to say, ‘Let’s not forget about USF.’”
Take Action Now
Realistically, funds won’t be distributed until 2023, but that doesn’t mean there’s any time to rest.
“There’s lots of foundational work to be done before building a network,” says Romano. “TNBA members need to be a part of those conversations to make sure rural communities will get fiber from the right kind of providers who are committed to their communities.”