When the House of Representatives passed the Biden administration’s $1 trillion the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act (IIJA) of 2021 bill on Nov. 5, wireless infrastructure associations, carriers, contractors and manufacturers returned to focusing on exactly how the $65 billion allocated for broadband funding will be doled out — and when.
A major chunk of the $65 billion — $42.4 billion — will be managed by the Commerce Department. Most of the $42.4 billion will be divided among the states, which will then work with municipalities and internet service providers to improve networks. The funds will be administered by the National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA) within the Commerce Department. Estimates about when the money begins flowing to the states range from six to 12 months.
At least $14.2 billion of the broadband funding will be directed toward the Affordable Connectivity Program, which will be aimed at reducing the digital divide — the persistent U.S. gap between the broadband haves and have-nots, which became obvious during the pandemic as school, work and healthcare shifted online. The funding is designed to deliver what White House called “reliable, affordable, high-speed internet to every household.” The rest of the funding will be earmarked for the Digital Equity Act ($2.76 billion), Tribal Connectivity Program ($2 billion), support for rural areas ($2 billion), middle-mile connectivity ($ 1 billion) and other programs.
A history of the $65 billion bipartisan broadband legislation follows.
On June 24, President Joe Biden and a bipartisan group of senators, five Democrats and five Republicans, revealed that they reached an agreement to allocate $65 billion toward broadband infrastructure as part of the $1 trillion infrastructure package that had been under negotiation for weeks. The $1 trillion package focused on so-called hard infrastructure, such as roads, bridges, EV charging, public transit and high-speed broadband.
The package stipulated $65 billion for broadband as an “investment ensuring every American has access to reliable high-speed internet,” according to the White House. Telecom carriers that receive the funding would be required to offer internet plans to consumers, along with easy ways to comparison-shop among providers.
The White House announcement to allocate $65 billion toward broadband infrastructure began to heat up a long-simmering argument among wireless and fiber companies — particularly between the Wireless Internet Service Provider Association (WISPA) and the Fiber Broadband Association (FBA).
On June 28, FBA announced that 172 organizations signed a letter addressed to Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy, asking Congress to “increase broadband speeds with future-proof fiber.” The 172 signers include consumer, local, rural and education organizations, as well as competitive ISPs (internet service providers) and trade groups representing wired and wireless builders.
On July 27, after months of talks, negotiations and hammering out details, a bipartisan group of senators struck an agreement on a roughly $1 trillion infrastructure package, including $65 billion for broadband development that includes fiber-optic, mobile and fixed wireless infrastructure. Wireless infrastructure groups were satisfied that the federal spending would help U.S. wireless infrastructure providers bridge the digital divide and win the race to 5G.
When the Senate passed the bill on Aug. 12, Todd Washam, director of government relations for NATE: The Communications Infrastructure Contractors Association, said, “NATE welcomes the bipartisan infrastructure agreement that has been reached between senators and President Biden, which provides an unprecedented $65 billion in funding for broadband deployment. The association is also pleased that the agreement includes provisions for wireless firms to be eligible for deployment funding. This historic investment will help fulfill one of NATE’s priorities, closing the digital divide, while delivering reliable internet and communications services to rural, unserved and underserved communities.”
When the House of Representatives passed the bill on Nov. 6, the Wireless Infrastructure Association (WIA), WISPA and NATE praised passage of the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act (IIJA) of 2021, which the House of Representatives approved on Nov. 5 with a bipartisan vote. The Senate passed the IIJA bill in August.
On Nov. 6, WIA President and CEO Jonathan Adelstein said, “By approving funding that can include wireless broadband, Congress enabled innovative, cost-effective and geographically appropriate mobile and fixed wireless service to connect consumers more quickly and efficiently. Now we need the administration and states to implement the law consistent with its mandates for technological flexibility and for prioritizing applicants that can deploy faster to unserved areas, which certainly includes wireless providers.”
Meanwhile, also on Nov. 6, NATE’s Washam said, “For nearly 25 years, NATE has advocated that communications infrastructure projects that allow for the rapid flow of information and data are just as important as infrastructure projects providing for the flow of travel and goods. The IIJA provides historic levels of funding for several of NATE’s top legislative priorities, and it will have a significant impact on efforts to close the digital divide in rural, unserved and underserved communities.”
Mike Harrington is a contributing editor.