Friday, January 14, 2022
You’re reading the Benton Institute for Broadband & Society’s Weekly Digest, a recap of the biggest (or most overlooked) broadband stories of the week. The digest is delivered via e-mail each Friday.
Round-Up for the Week of January 10-14, 2022
On January 11, the U.S. Senate voted 60-31 to confirm the nomination of Alan Davidson to be the Assistant Secretary of Commerce for Communications and Information. Once sworn in, Davidson will lead the National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA), which is President Joe Biden’s principal adviser on telecommunications and information policy. Just last month, the Senate confirmed Jessica Rosenworcel for a new term as a commissioner at the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) and President Biden has tapped her to lead the agency. So begins what will likely be the most consequential broadband relationship in Washington over the next few years.
Through the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act, Congress is investing $65 billion to help ensure that every American has access to reliable, affordable high-speed internet. The investment is meant to make sure that broadband infrastructure reaches more than 30 million Americans who live in areas where high-speed internet access service is unavailable or inadequate—and to make service more accessible to millions more who can’t afford monthly broadband bills.
Even before the infrastructure law was passed, the NTIA, the FCC, and the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), as required by Congress in the Consolidated Appropriations Act of 2021, entered an agreement to “share information with each other about existing or planned projects that have received or will receive funds for new broadband deployment under the FCC’s High-Cost Programs, the programs administered by the Rural Utilities Service of USDA, and the programs administered by or coordinated through NTIA.” The agencies said they would consider distributing broadband deployment funds “based on standardized data regarding broadband coverage.”
To successfully implement the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act and close the digital divide, the NTIA and the FCC have been called on to not just lead, but to collaborate as well. As the law states: “It is the sense of Congress that Federal agencies responsible for supporting broadband deployment, including the [FCC and NTIA] … should align the goals, application and reporting processes, and project requirements with respect to broadband deployment supported by those agencies.”
Here are some examples of NTIA-FCC collaboration required in the Investment Investment and Jobs Act.
I. How NTIA + FCC = BEAD
The NTIA has over $40 billion to distribute for broadband deployment grants to the states through the Broadband Equity, Access, and Deployment (BEAD) Program. Although NTIA controls that money, the FCC plays a crucial role.
A. Maps, Maps, Maps
In the coming months, few broadband questions may be asked more than “Where’s the FCC’s broadband maps?”
BEAD program money will not flow until the FCC has made public new maps showing where broadband service is and isn’t available.
The FCC is in the process of updating its current broadband maps with more detailed and precise information on the availability of fixed and mobile broadband services. The Broadband Deployment Accuracy and Technological Availability (DATA) Act, signed into law in March 2020, requires the FCC to change the way broadband data is collected, verified, and reported. Specifically, the FCC must collect and disseminate granular broadband service availability data (broadband maps) from wired, fixed-wireless, satellite, and mobile broadband providers.
To do this, the FCC is required to establish the Broadband Serviceable Location Fabric (a dataset of geocoded information for all broadband service locations, atop which broadband maps are overlaid) as the vehicle for reporting broadband service availability data. Additionally, the FCC must put forth specified requirements for service availability data collected from broadband providers, and it must create a challenge process to enable the submission of independent data challenging the accuracy of FCC broadband maps. The U.S. Census Bureau, like NTIA also housed in the Department of Commerce, must provide the FCC a count of the aggregate number of housing units in each census block.
In November 2021, the FCC awarded the contract for Broadband Serviceable Location Fabric development to CostQuest Associates. But an unsuccessful bidder filed a post-award protest and the U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO) has 100 days to issue a decision on the protest. The FCC must wait on the GAO decision before moving forward on Broadband Serviceable Location Fabric development.
In addition to these broadband maps, the FCC will, by mid-May 2023, create an online mapping tool that provides an overview of the overall geographic footprint of each broadband infrastructure deployment project funded by the federal government. The map will include projects funded by NTIA programs as well as the FCC itself, the USDA, the Department of Health and Human Services, the Department of the Treasury, the Department of Housing and Urban Development, the Institute of Museum and Library Sciences, and any other federal agency that provides such data relating to broadband infrastructure.
B. Data, Data, Data
The Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act mandates a number of reporting requirements including for BEAD program subgrantees. Semiannually, subgrantees will report to their state to track the effectiveness of the use of funds provided to the subgrantee. For broadband infrastructure projects, subgrantees must comply with FCC data and mapping collection standards.
Overall, NTIA and the FCC will be collaborating to standardize a methodology for the reporting of locations at which broadband service was provided using grant funds.
C. What’s a “High-Cost” Area?
After the FCC maps are public, NTIA will quickly send a portion of Broadband Equity, Access, and Deployment Program money to the states, calculating how much each state is to receive based on a formula: dividing the number of unserved locations in high-cost areas in the state by the total number of unserved locations in the U.S. and multiplying that by 10 percent of the total amount of dollars to be distributed. (Each state will get at least $100 million.)
The Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act also creates a new program, the Affordable Connectivity Program, at the FCC to provide discounts on monthly broadband bills for low-income households. Broadband providers will receive up to $30/month for providing service to eligible low-income households and pass the savings on to the consumers. However, the law provides for a separate enhanced benefit for households that are served by providers in high-cost areas.
Although the FCC has already launched the Affordable Connectivity Program, it is up to the NTIA, in consultation with the FCC, to identify areas without 25/3 Mbps broadband service in which the cost of building out broadband infrastructure is higher as compared with the average cost in unserved areas in the United States. Factors to be considered are:
- the remote location of the area;
- the lack of population density of the area;
- the unique topography of the area;
- a high rate of poverty in the area; or
- other factors, identified by NTIA and the FCC, that contribute to the higher cost of deploying broadband service in the area.
There is no legislative deadline for the NTIA to identify high-cost areas.
D. BEAD Technical Support and Assistance
The BEAD program will require much from states in terms of planning and making sure broadband networks reach everywhere. To help, NTIA, in consultation with the FCC, will provide technical support and assistance including:
- the development of grant applications,
- the development of plans and procedures for distribution of funds, and
- any other technical support NTIA determines necessary.
E. BEAD Subgrantees
By mid-May 2022, NTIA will issue a notice of funding opportunity to states, informing them of the Broadband Equity, Access, and Deployment Program and how much funding support will be made available to each state. At that time, NTIA will outline the requirements for applications, including standards, developed in consultation with the FCC, for how states will assess the capabilities and capacities of a prospective subgrantee (that is, any entity that receives BEAD grant funds from a state to carry out planning, broadband infrastructure deployment, data collection, broadband mapping, providing affordable internet-capable devices, etc.). NTIA will also specify that subgrantees must comply with prudent cybersecurity and supply chain risk management practices developed in consultation with the Director of the National Institute of Standards and Technology and the FCC.
F. Broadband Plans for Low-Income Consumers
Networks built with BEAD program funds are required to offer low-cost service plans for low-income consumers. NTIA will consult with the FCC to create a website that allows a consumer to determine if they are eligible to receive a federal or state broadband service subsidy or for a low-income plan on a BEAD-supported network. (The website will also offer consumers information about how to apply for a subsidy.)
II. Digital Equity Grants
In addition to broadband deployment, the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act also makes historic investments in digital adoption through the Digital Equity Act of 2021. NTIA will run programs with $2.75 billion in funding. Here, too, the FCC will play a role.
NTIA is establishing the State Digital Equity Capacity Grant Program to “promote the achievement of digital equity, support digital inclusion activities, and build capacity for efforts by States relating to the adoption of broadband by residents of those States.” NTIA will consult with the FCC and other federal agencies to ensure the program complements and enhances, and does not conflict with, other federal broadband initiatives and programs. The FCC administers two large programs—Lifeline and the aforementioned Affordable Connectivity Program—that address a key aspect of digital equity—affordability.
NTIA will make grants to states to support the implementation of statewide digital equity plans. The FCC plays a role in determining the amount of funding available to each state. That funding is based on a formula that includes a state’s population, the proportion of the state that is a “covered population”(1), and the broadband availability and adoption in the state based on data from the FCC, the American Community Survey, and the NTIA’s own Internet Use Survey.
NTIA will also establish the Digital Equity Competitive Grant Program with similar aims of the State Digital Equity Capacity Grant Program. Again, NTIA will consult with the FCC and other federal agencies to ensure the program complements and enhances, and does not conflict with, other federal broadband initiatives and programs.
The Digital Equity Act of 2021 provisions of the infrastructure law also include reporting requirements. NTIA will submit annual reports to Congress that will, in part, evaluate if states are meeting the goals of the Digital Equity Act and to develop, catalog, disseminate, and promote the exchange of best practices in order to achieve digital equity. NTIA will “conduct ongoing collaboration and consult with” the FCC and other federal agencies to meet these requirements.
III. Telecommunications Interagency Working Group
Finally, the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act instructs the FCC and the Department of Labor to establish the Telecommunications Interagency Working Group to develop recommendations to address the workforce needs of the telecommunications industry, including the safety of that workforce. A representative of the NTIA will sit on the working group which, by mid-November 2022, will identify:
- Federal laws, regulations, guidance, policies, or practices, or any budgetary constraints, that could be amended to strengthen the ability of institutions of higher education or for-profit businesses to establish, adopt, or expand programs intended to address the workforce needs of the telecommunications industry, including the workforce needed to build and maintain the 5G wireless infrastructure necessary to support 5G wireless technology;
- Potential policies and programs that could encourage and improve coordination among Federal agencies, between Federal agencies and States, and among States, on telecommunications workforce needs;
- Ways in which existing Federal programs, including programs that help facilitate the employment of veterans and military personnel transitioning into civilian life, could be leveraged to help address the workforce needs of the telecommunications industry;
- Ways to improve recruitment in workforce development programs in the telecommunications industry;
- Federal incentives that could be provided to institutions of higher education, for-profit businesses, State workforce development boards, or other relevant stakeholders to establish or adopt new programs, expand current programs, or partner with registered apprenticeship programs, to address the workforce needs of the telecommunications industry, including such needs in rural areas;
- Ways to improve the safety of telecommunications workers, including tower climbers; and
- Ways that trends in wages, benefits, and working conditions in the telecommunications industry impact recruitment of employees in the sector.
IV. We’ll Always Have Spectrum
The FCC and NTIA’s need to collaborate well proceeds the new infrastructure law.
The FCC and NTIA regulate and manage spectrum, and other agencies (think the Federal Aviation Administration, which has made news of late) are among federal spectrum users. To address potential interference among proposed uses of spectrum, these agencies employ various coordination mechanisms. For domestic matters, the agencies coordinate through an NTIA-led committee that provides input to FCC’s spectrum proceedings. This two agency approach can be … challenging.
FCC and NTIA confront complex and challenging tasks in regulating and managing the diverse uses of spectrum and accommodating the growing needs of emerging spectrum-dependent technologies while protecting existing uses from harmful interference. Indeed, the roles of FCC and NTIA in managing spectrum involve balancing the concerns of various spectrum users to promote the most efficient and effective use of the spectrum resource in the public interest. The two agencies’ decisions may not always comport with the views of specific spectrum users, which may have competing priorities.
In 2021, the GAO recommended:
- The FCC and NTIA should establish clearly defined and agreed-upon processes for making decisions on spectrum-management activities that involve other agencies, particularly when consensus cannot be reached.
- The FCC and NTIA should clarify and further identify shared goals or outcomes for spectrum-management activities that involve collaboration and ways to monitor and track progress, in consultation with NTIA.
- The FCC and NTIA should update the FCC-NTIA MOU to address identified gaps (such as the lack of clearly defined goals and agreed-upon processes for making decisions) and develop a means to continually monitor and update this agreement.
With both FCC Chairwoman Rosenworcel and NTIA Director Davison in place, Senate Commerce Committee Minority Leader Roger Wicker (R-MS) this week urged them to work cooperatively to resolve spectrum policy issues and update the Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) on spectrum coordination, which has not been updated since 2003. In 2021, Sen. Wicker co-sponsored the Improving Spectrum Coordination Act of 2021 to require the agencies to do just that.
V. Congratulations and ‘Get to Work’
The Benton Institute for Broadband & Society welcomes the confirmation of both FCC Chairwoman Rosenworcel and NTIA Director Davidson. They both bring a wealth of knowledge, talent and experience that will serve U.S. broadband policy well.
While congratulating Davidson this week, Rosenworcel said, “The FCC and NTIA have worked together as partners in the past, and I look forward to building on that history with close cooperation in the future.” She added, “Working together, I am confident we can make progress on delivering innovative, modern communications that reach everyone, everywhere.”
Their ability to collaborate may well decide how successful they—and the nation—are at closing the digital divide.
- Individuals who live in covered households (that is, a household with income that is not more than 150 percent of an amount equal to the poverty level), aging individuals, incarcerated individuals, veterans, individuals with disabilities, individuals with a language barrier (think: those who are learning English or who have low levels of literacy), individuals who are members of a racial or ethnic minority group, and individuals who primarily reside in a rural area.
Weekend Reads (resist tl;dr)
ICYMI from Benton
Jan 18, 19, 20—The ReConnect Application Workshop (USDA)
Jan 19—$42.5 Billion Passed for Broadband Infrastructure – Now for Your Next Steps (Fiber Broadband Association)
Jan 19—Getting Started with Digital Equity: Conducting a Local Needs Assessment (National League of Cities)
Jan 25—State of the Net Conference 2022 (Internet Education Foundation)
Jan 26—Tech regulation is coming: How does Big Tech respond? (Protocol)
Feb 3—University of Pennsylvania Carey Law School Alumni Awards (University of Pennsylvania Carey Law School)
Feb 8, 9, 10—The ReConnect Application Workshop (USDA)
Feb 8—Key Legal Issues: From Plan Implementation Through Ongoing Operation and Regulatory Compliance (International Municipal Lawyers Association)
Feb 15-17—Net Inclusion 2022 (National Digital Inclusion Alliance)