The telecom industry has been fretting for months over so-called Buy American requirements for new broadband funding programs which would force grant recipients to use products and materials that contain at least 55% domestic content. But it appears relief from these worries could be on the horizon.
Telecommunications Industry Association (TIA) CEO Dave Stehlin told Fierce the group has been working closely with government agencies on issues related to the $42.5 billion Broadband Equity, Access, and Deployment (BEAD) Program. Those discussions include everyone from the Department of Commerce and National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA) to the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) and White House. He said based on the dialogue it has had with these agencies on the Buy America question, TIA is expecting a waiver to be granted “in the short term.”
Stehlin said he’s unsure of what form the waiver might take. It could be a specific to the electronics in broadband networks or could be a broader but time-limited waiver.
Absent some sort of relief in the next 30 to 90 days, though, Stehlin said the BEAD program will “have some serious problems.”
“There are parts of the network that are all made in the United States and we certainly want more of that. But there are also parts of the network that are not made in the United States,” he explained, pointing specifically to active network components that rely on semiconductors. “If those [semiconductors] aren’t made in the United States there’s no way you’re going to meet the requirements.”
Fierce reached out to other industry associations to see if they had similar expectations or information about an imminent waiver. The Fiber Broadband Association (FBA) and NCTA – The Internet & Television Association said they did not.
An NTIA representative declined to comment on Stehlin's prediction. NTIA chief Alan Davidson previously stated the agency expects there will be some BEAD waivers granted but broadly intends to abide by the Buy American requirement as passed by Congress.
Stehlin’s statements about the feasibility of the Buy American requirements echo comments made in recent months by groups and vendors including USTelecom, NCTA, NTCA – The Rural Broadband Association, CTIA, the Competitive Carriers Association, TechNet, Cisco, Dell Technologies, Hewlett Packard Enterprise, Intel, Samsung, WISPA and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce.
At issue is not so much the industry’s desire to use American-made goods, but more its ability to do so while also meeting deployment timelines attached to Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act (IIJA) programs like BEAD. Supply chain issues are also compounding the situation. The U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Rural Development division which oversees the well-known ReConnect broadband funding program, has also sought a waiver from the Buy American requirements. Its fourth ReConnect funding round is being fueled by a $2 billion allocation from the IIJA.