Monday, November 15, 2021
Having waited patiently for the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act, now people want to know what happens next—when will we all get our broadband? For now, the action shifts from Congress to key federal agencies that will implement the broadband provisions of the new law. Our friends at Brookings recently pointed out that the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act “represents a longer-term patient approach to rebuilding American competitiveness through infrastructure.” The law makes our biggest investment yet in closing the digital divide, an investment measured in years, not weeks—and an approach much more holistic than throwing money at a problem. In the short term, here are the agencies we expect to be busy making sure the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act lives up to its promise.
What To Expect This Year
The Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act did not create the Tribal Broadband Connectivity Program, but the law instructs the National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA) at the U.S. Department of Commerce to allow grantees more time to deploy broadband networks and help more people get online. Congress also added $2 billion in funding to the program. The Consolidated Appropriations Act, 2021, created the grant program, setting aside $980 million for awards. In September, NTIA announced it had received more than 280 applications requesting over $5 billion in support. NTIA expects to complete its review, selection of successful applicants, and award processing by November 29, 2021. NTIA expects the earliest start date for awards to be December 13, 2021.
The Federal Communications Commission faces some of the fastest-approaching deadlines laid out in the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act. First, by December 15, 2021 the FCC must launch a proceeding to evaluate the implications of the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act on the FCC’s Congressionally mandated goal to “encourage the deployment on a reasonable and timely basis of [broadband] to all Americans.” The FCC, through the Universal Service Administrative Company (USAC), administers the Universal Service Fund which annually provides billions of dollars to deploy broadband networks and make internet services more affordable for low-income consumers, schools, libraries, and rural healthcare facilities. Congress now wants recommendations from the FCC on further actions needed to ensure everyone in the U.S. has broadband. Congress mandates that the FCC’s recommendations 1) not reduce the universal broadband goals, but 2) may ask Congress to expand upon universal service goals. The FCC must deliver this report to Congress by August 22, 2022.
Although the FCC worked swiftly to launch the Emergency Broadband Benefit Program in 2021, the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act puts the initiative on a more permanent footing, renaming it the Affordable Connectivity Program. There are a number of changes to the program (see The Emergency Broadband Benefit Becomes the (Permanent) Affordable Connectivity Program) and the FCC needs to implement them by December 31, 2021, and complete the transition for Emergency Broadband Benefit/Affordable Connectivity Program consumers by March 2022.
What to Expect in the First Quarter of 2022
Next year will be a busy time for federal broadband policymakers. By mid-January, the FCC must take action on two items. To help streamline enrollment in the new Affordable Connectivity Program, Congress instructs the Secretary of Agriculture, the Secretary of Education, and the Secretary of Health and Human Services to enter into a memorandum of understanding with USAC “to provide for the expeditious sharing of data through the National Verifier,” which is Lifeline’s centralized application system. It determines whether consumers are eligible for Lifeline. USAC manages the National Verifier and provides customer service to consumers through the Lifeline Support Center. By mid-February, these agencies are to begin actually sharing data. For consumers applying for Affordable Connectivity Program broadband discounts, this means the National Verifier should be able to quickly confirm their participation in programs that qualify them for the Affordable Connectivity Program including Medicaid, the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, Federal Public Housing Assistance, the free and reduced-price lunch program, or the school breakfast program.
By mid-January, the FCC, in partnership with the Secretary of Labor, will establish an interagency working group to develop recommendations to address the workforce needs of the telecommunications industry, including the safety of that workforce. That working group has until January 2023 to submit recommendations to Congress. (We detailed what Congress is asking from the Telecommunications Interagency Working Group in an earlier article.) By November 15, 2022, the Secretary of Labor, working with the FCC chair, will issue guidance on how states can address the workforce needs and safety of the telecommunications industry, including how a state workforce development board can: 1) utilize Federal resources available to states to meet the workforce needs of the telecommunications industry, 2) promote and improve recruitment in workforce development programs in the telecommunications industry, and 3) ensure the safety of the telecommunications workforce, including tower climbers.
What to Expect in the Second Quarter of 2022
The headline-grabbing number in the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act is the over $42 billion for broadband deployment grants to the states. By mid-May, 2022, the NTIA will create the Broadband Equity, Access, and Deployment Program to support projects to construct and deploy broadband networks. NTIA will also publish a Notice of Funding Opportunity (NOFO) notifying states about the new program and the minimum initial allocation of funding each state will receive. States will be invited to submit letters of intent signifying they plan to participate in the program. States will then be eligible to receive funding for planning and pre-deployment activities. However the NTIA will not make the bulk of that funding available until the FCC implements the Broadband Deployment Accuracy and Technological Availability (DATA) Act, signed into law in March 2020. The FCC must collect and make public much more granular data on broadband service availability throughout the country. All eyes will be on the FCC in the coming months as it is unknown when this data will be available.
Also in mid-May, the U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO) will submit a report to Congress that estimates the number of skilled telecommunications workers that will be required to build and maintain broadband infrastructure in rural areas and the wireless infrastructure needed to support 5G. That report will likely inform the recommendations of the Telecommunications Interagency Working Group mentioned above.
What to Expect in Later in 2022
As one might expect, Congress has given agencies one-year deadlines for some tasks, so the final quarter of 2022 will be interesting.
On October 1, 2022, NTIA will begin awarding planning grants to states for the purpose of developing State Digital Equity Plans. States will then have one year to develop those plans. NTIA has $60 million for this program in this fiscal year (Oct 1, 2021 through Sept 30, 2022), but the delays in the final passage of the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act mean the NTIA can’t act until next October. Look for Congress to possibly amend this language in the coming weeks. There is additional funding to support the implementation of state digital equity plans. These funds will be allocated to states beginning no later than two years after the planning grant awards begin.
By November 15, 2022, the FCC must issue final rules on consumer broadband labels including information on introductory vs long-term rates paid by consumers. The FCC is to use the information displayed on the new broadband labels for Affordable Connectivity Program pricing reporting. (See Consumer Broadband Labels.) By the same date, the FCC will issue final rules concerning the annual collection of pricing and subscription rate data from participating Affordable Connectivity Program broadband providers. The FCC will revise those rules within six months (or whenever it deems necessary) to verify data accuracy. The FCC will make this data available to the public.
Also on November 15, 2022, the GAO must submit an evaluation of the FCC’s process for establishing, reviewing, and updating the upload and download speed thresholds for broadband internet access service. In 2015, the FCC updated its broadband benchmark speeds to 25 megabits per second (Mbps) for downloads and 3 Mbps for uploads. But it has declined to update the speeds every year since then. In 2015, 25/3 broadband was deemed “aspirational” as the FCC’s previous benchmark was 4 Mbps/1 Mbps (set in 2010). By contrast, BroadbandNow estimates that 40 percent of people in the U.S. have access to 100/100 internet in 2021.
What to Expect in 2023 and 2024
The work mandated by the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act will continue for many years. By May 15, 2023, the FCC will create the Broadband Deployment Locations Map, an overview of the overall geographic footprint of all federally-funded broadband networks. The FCC will update the map every six months.
By November 15, 2023, the FCC will issue final rules to facilitate equal access to broadband internet access service, including: preventing digital discrimination of access based on income level, race, ethnicity, color, religion, or national origin; and identifying necessary steps for the FCC to take to eliminate such discrimination.