House of Representatives Passes Infrastructure Bill with $65 Billion for Broadband Projects

Technicians installing fiber optic cable. | Photo by Mika Baumeister on Unsplash
Published On
Nov 9, 2021

The House of Representatives passed a bipartisan bill to spend $1.2 trillion on upgrading the nation’s infrastructure, including rebuilding roads and bridges, expanding internet access and other projects, on Nov. 5, 2021. It is headed to the president’s desk, and Biden is expected to sign it in the coming days.

The bill passed the House by a vote of 228–206, with 13 Republicans joining most Democrats to push it over the finish line.

The White House estimates that ground will break on projects funded by the infrastructure measure by the spring. The legislation, the president said on Nov. 7, is a “once-in-a-generation investment that's going to create millions of jobs modernizing our infrastructure, our roads, our bridges, our broadband, a whole range of things, to turn the climate crisis into an opportunity.”

Of particular interest to many ECs is the segment related to broadband.

“The legislation’s $65 billion for broadband access aims to improve internet services for rural areas, low-income families and tribal communities,” according to CBS News. “Most of the money would be made available through grants to states.”

According to Yahoo News, “The pandemic proved the necessity of connectivity to participate in daily American life, and Biden’s administration acknowledged this by including this funding in the infrastructure package.”

In specific, the broadband portion of the legislation earmarks:

  • $42.45 billion in grants to states for broadband projects, which can range from network deployment to data collection to assess which areas lack service.

  • $14.2 billion to provide a monthly vouchers of $30 to low-income Americans to pay for internet service. It will replace the current $50-a-month voucher under the Emergency Broadband Benefit program. While the new voucher program offers less money monthly to individuals, it increases the number of those eligible for assistance.

  • $2.75 billion for projects focused on digital inclusion and equity, such as improving seniors’ digital literacy or online skills.

  • $2 billion each for a rural broadband construction program called ReConnect, which is run by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, and for the Tribal Broadband Connectivity Program, which is run by the Commerce Department’s National Telecommunications and Information Administration.

  • $1 billion to build so-called “middle mile” infrastructure that will connect local providers to larger internet access points.

  • $600 million for private activity bonds that will finance broadband deployment projects in rural areas.

According to Yahoo News, 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.

In an article published by Lightreading.com, a number of industry players have commented on the legislation.

For example, the Wireless Internet Service Providers Association (WISPA), which lobbied for a “tech-neutral” approach to the bill rather than one that favored fiber, said, “WISPA’s members connect communities in the toughest reaches of America, and we worked hard with congressional leadership on both sides of the aisle to make sure all technologies remain available to bring high-quality, ever-evolving internet connectivity to all Americans. This ‘open toolbox’ approach will help consumers by driving innovation and keeping internet plans affordable and accessible to all.”

Members of the House also commented. On Friday afternoon, for example, when it was still unclear if the House had enough votes to pass the infrastructure package without moving it forward simultaneously with the president’s Build Back Better social spending bill, House Majority Whip James E. Clyburn (D-S.C.), one of the leaders on the broadband legislation front, told the press that attending to the digital divide was reason enough to pass the legislation immediately, noting that without it, rural states like his won’t be able to have telehealth, online learning or even on-time shipping for their local businesses.

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