Experts from three key industry and worker groups dished on what they view as the key hits and misses in the U.S. government’s broadband policy, after the Department of Commerce issued rules that will guide the distribution of $45 billion in funding for network rollouts. Among other things, they spotlighted a focus on fiber, secure networks, state planning grants and workforce provisions.
In an interview with Fierce, Fiber Broadband Association CEO Gary Bolton hailed the government’s decision to prioritize funding for fiber projects, pointing to this as a “very clear statement” that fiber is a “transformative” technology. But he said another provision defining cable, DSL and fixed wireless as reliable broadband stuck in his craw.
“It means that if you have DSL and you happen to get 100 by 20 [Mbps] on your DSL, you don’t get fiber with this infrastructure investment,” Bolton explained. “The sad part about that is DSL is dead. I don’t think anybody on the planet will argue that DSL has any more life in it.”
Bolton added the rules left a few others threads that fiber opponents are likely to start pulling. Specifically, he noted states will be able to define the threshold for extreme high-cost locations. This will open the door for less expensive alternatives to fiber to be deployed in areas where the project cost is over the threshold. “Obviously if you’re one of those guys with a lesser technology, you’re going to want to get that threshold as low as possible,” Bolton said.
But Telecommunications Industry Association (TIA) VP of Government Affairs Melissa Newman countered that there will be parts of the country where it’s just not feasible to deploy fiber. Thus, she told Fierce she “wasn’t thrilled” by the Commerce Department’s decision to classify areas covered only by satellite or unlicensed spectrum-based services as unserved.
However, Newman applauded plenty of other elements in the funding notice, including the support it provides for states and provisions around using trusted network suppliers. For instance, as part of the Broadband Equity, Access, and Deployment (BEAD) program states are eligible to receive $5 million in initial planning funds upfront. Newman said this will make it easier for states to participate in the program.
“It’s really hard to jump in when you don’t have an office set up to do it,” she explained. “I think NTIA has done everything it could to understand states are at different places, have different resources available and this gives everybody a jumping off point to participate. This is the first time I’ve actually ever seen something like that.”
Newman noted the funding notice’s provisions around supply chain risk management are also “unprecedented.” In addition to specifying that funding cannot be used to buy equipment from companies banned under the Secure and Trusted Communications Act, the rules also require entities which receive grants from the states to have an actionable supply chain risk management plan in place that is based on principles outlined by the National Institute of Standards and Technology.
“That’s important to us. We think it’s the right way to go,” she said. “Especially as you know with all the breaches and things that have occurred in the last couple of years, it’s really important that companies have supply chain risk management plans. That’s the part we were thrilled to see that I think is new in this realm.”
Meanwhile, the Communications Workers of America (CWA) highlighted workforce provisions. In a press release, the union noted entities receiving federal funding will need report whether they plan to use a unionized workforce and verify that non-unionized workers have the appropriate training and certifications.
CWA President Chris Shelton said in a statement the rules “effectively address many of our concerns about the failure of past programs to bring reliable, high speed broadband and good, union jobs to rural and underserved communities.”