People involved in the deployment of fiber in the United States are getting pretty excited about the prospect of the infrastructure bill being approved in the House of Representatives and then being signed by President Joe Biden.
It’s unclear exactly what the final bill will be called — whether it’s the INVEST in America Act or the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act, or something else — but if it becomes law, as much as $65 billion could become available to boost broadband, of which $42.5 billion may become available for deploying broadband to unserved and underserved areas in the U.S.
Speaker Nancy Pelosi has called for the House to return next week for a vote. Strangely, there are some House Democrats who may delay the process for other political goals, unrelated to the infrastructure bill. But there’s optimism that it will ultimately pass.
Speaking at a panel hosted today by the Fiber Broadband Association, Kim Bayliss, principal at the Washington, D.C. lobby firm Perry Bayliss, explained how the process will unfold if the bill passes.
Bayliss said the NTIA will develop the program to manage and dispense the funding, with consultation from the Federal Communications Commission (FCC). “Every state and territory will receive at least $100 million,” said Bayliss. Other money will be allocated to the states based on a formula that takes into consideration the percentage of unserved areas in that state.
“The money for the broadband projects can’t actually be distributed until the FCC completes its national broadband access maps,” said Bayliss. Broadband projects will be prioritized with unserved areas getting first priority, then underserved areas and then community anchor institutions.
Unserved areas are defined as ones where 80% of the households received less than 25 Mbps downstream/3 Mbps upstream, and an underserved area is where 80% of the households are those that receive less than 100/20 service.
The Fiber Broadband Association’s attorney Tom Cohen called the infrastructure bill “historic.” He said, “Right now every year the FCC and the RUS [Rural Utilities Service] give about $10 billion in all their universal service programs. If you look at the infrastructure bill, in effect, that’s going to double the amount that’s given out each year. I think by the time it gets implemented it’s going to be going out the door in 2023. In effect it’s the rest of the decade. Each year $10 billion more dollars.”
Jordan Gross, manager of federal government affairs at Corning, pointed out that there is not any kind of uniform or standardized method for states to deal with broadband funding. “There are states that are very prepared and have been managing their programs, and there are some states that don’t currently have an office,” he said.
He said that in state legislatures this year 175 state broadband funding bills have been introduced, so far. About 50 of those have been enacted. “I think what’s really important about these bills that have gone through at the state level, it starts to prepare the processes so when larger dollar amounts start rolling through from NTIA, that they are already familiar,” said Gross.
Bayliss and Cohen both emphasized the importance of the FCC’s initiative to prepare accurate broadband maps. “The initial gating factor is broadband mapping,” said Cohen.
Recently, the FCC published its first map that shows 4G LTE mobile broadband coverage across the U.S.
And the FCC is working on its map for fixed internet service, with the aim of showing broadband internet access on a house-by-house, location-by-location basis.
“Hopefully, that exercise gets done by the end of the year,” said Cohen. Once the map is done, service providers will be asked to contribute their data about which households they serve.
Bayliss stressed the importance of the maps because while each state gets $100 million guaranteed, they will receive additional allocations based on unserved households in their states. “That all depends on the maps,” she said. “States with a lot of unserved areas are going to get more money.”