Federal and state agencies are gearing up to distribute billions of dollars in broadband grant monies under the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act. The National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA) is the lead organization tasked with distributing funds, while the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) will handle the new low-income subsidy. Both agencies are expected to provide support and advice.
“Congress set out to have two major federal agencies, the NTIA and FCC, to…not just engage in a handful of subsidies or kind of a transitional way… but really engaging in a transformative effort,” said Ernesto Falcon, Senior Legislative Counsel, Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF). “Both of these agencies have some very distinct responsibilities.”
NTIA’s main responsibility will be issuing and overseeing the $43.5 billion in grant monies to the states, as well as providing guidance to states as they develop their own plans. Each state and territory will have different organizational and fiscal resources and will receive $100 million in federal money out of a baseline of $5.4 billion spread equally among all. The remaining $38 billion in funding will be allocated on a proportional basis as a fraction of the number of unserved and underserved households in the state out of the national total of unserved and underserved households.
Additional monies will first be allocated to unserved areas that don’t have today’s FCC baseline of 25 Mbps/3 Mbps then to underserved areas lacking reliable 100 Mbps/20 Mbps service, with technical emphasis on projects providing broadband network solutions with low latency and easily scalable networks that are capable of not only supporting today’s 100 Mbps/20 Mbps minimum needs but “easily scalable” future growth over time.
“Particularly the word ‘easily’,” Falcon said. “The entity responsible is going to have to define that… Technically every network can scale, right? You could throw enough hardware at it, throw enough investment at it, throw enough money at it if you have infinite money, you can make anything scale, launch triple the number of satellites, build triple the number of wireless towers, right? There's any way to make those things scale, but easily scalable I really think [that] leans pretty heavily on fiber because as we all know the structural capacities in that [technology].”
Falcon explained that fiber’s ability to ramp upward in speeds from today’s baseline gigabit and 10 Gbps services by simply upgrading the electronics make it the only medium that will be able to meet people’s needs 30 years from now without significant capital expenditures.
States will have to develop 5-year action plans on how they will use their funding which will need to include proposed solutions for affordable broadband service, identifying technical assistance needed to carry out the plan, and a timetable for full deployment. Customers need access to broadband no later than four years after funding is received, subject to legitimate extensions.
The FCC is transitioning its short-term Emergency Broadband Benefit plan into a 5-year Affordable Connectivity Fund (ACF), providing families with a $30/month subsidy and expanded eligibility status. It is also undertaking a Digital Discrimination rulemaking scheduled to be adopted no later than November 2023. Under the rules, the FCC would prevent digital discrimination based on income level, race, ethnicity, color, religion, or national origin, acting to facilitate equal access to broadband services in any given area, considering technical and economic feasibility.
Listen to the full discussion with Ernesto Falcon on the Fiber for Breakfast Podcast.