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Bipartisan infrastructure framework for rural America

A massive infrastructure bill at USD 1 trillion that is making its way through the US legislature, includes a section on broadband equity, cyber security, and spectrum auctions.

The 2700-page bill, titled the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act proposes to spend USD 65 billion on broadband-related items, headlined by USD 42.45 billion in funding for a Broadband Equity, Access, and Deployment Program. The program, the bill’s most ambitious shot at bridging the digital divide, will commission a nationwide broadband data mapping, and make grants available to underserved or unserved communities when it comes to broadband access.

The bill further includes USD 1 billion over a five-year period to help build out middle-mile broadband infrastructure. The bill defines middle-mile infrastructure as broadband infrastructure that does not connect to an end-user. Some examples the legislation gives are undersea cables, and transport connectivity to data centers.

The bill also takes an extra stab at working toward digital equity through the creation of two digital equity grant programs. That portion of the bill – the Digital Equity Act of 2021 – had been introduced in the Senate in June.

The Digital Equity Act, with USD 2.75 billion in funding, from fiscal year 2022 to fiscal year 2026, outlines both a state digital equity grant program and a competitive digital equity grant program. The state grant program would have its funds distributed based on a funding formula, while the latter would reward funds based on a competitive application process.

The bill sets USD 2 billion in funding aside for a tribal broadband connectivity fund, and another USD 2 billion would go toward rural telemedicine, distance learning, and broadband program. The Appalachian Regional Commission’s High Speed Internet Initiative also makes an appearance, with USD 100 million set aside over five years.

Adding up the cost. A change to the Emergency Broadband Benefit program also represents a chunk of the legislation’s broadband funding, according to an analysis from the Information Technology Industry Council.

The bill would also update and cut prices on the Emergency Broadband Benefit (EBB) program, being run by the Federal Communications Commission. The EBB which currently lets citizens access plans as low as USD 50 per month, would be renamed the Affordable Connectivity Benefit program, and cut the monthly prices on those affordable plans down to just USD 30 per month.

The program received initial funding of USD 7.17 billion in March’s American Rescue Plan. The program has USD 14.2 billion appropriated for its life cycle. The final USD 2.5 billion of the bill’s broadband funding would go toward a reconnecting communities pilot program.

The infrastructure legislation will aim to end the practice of digital redlining, or the practice of broadband companies refusing to provide or build access to service in areas deemed to be a financial risk.

Cybersecurity and IT modernization got the most attention from private sector technology leaders at the House Government Operations Subcommittee on July 28.

Federal CIO, Clare Martorana said, “At the present time, cybersecurity is our immediate priority in Federal IT.”

“Government needs to incentivize industry to bring their innovative cloud solutions to the government, not penalize them for trying,” he suggested. “Government must continue to find ways to improve FedRAMP and reduce industry’s burdens for no other reason than offloading their own FISMA requirements. Additionally, Federal procurement and acquisition must modernize to align with the times and challenges. When it takes 6–12 months to buy an innovative solution, the innovation is gone. Government needs to investigate entirely new procurement methods to better align with how services can be utilized in scalable ways rather than traditional contracting models.”

Comcast Corp and Charter Communications came out winners of the bill. Senators declined to pour US subsidies to places where these companies already had networks. Had they done so, it would have spurred more competition in such regions.

The bill will send subsidies to regions that lack rudimentary service. It will also bring more customers to broadband providers by extending the emergency broadband program that helps customers pay for service.

While the bill requires the providers to offer a low-cost broadband option, it includes language that prohibits the government from setting rates. Large providers already offer such programs. Views on this provision range from no impact on providers to a possible risk should the Biden administration seek to ensure that cheap packages are available to more customers.

The American Telecommunications Security Act that would prohibit Federal funding from the American Rescue Plan Act from being used to purchase telecommunications equipment from Chinese companies seen as national security threats, including Huawei and ZTE, has been introduced by Sens. Mark Warner, D-Va., and Tom Cotton, R-Ark.

“With states across the country mapping out their plans for quality and affordable high-speed internet as a result of historic funding from the American Rescue Plan, we’ve got to make sure no community is sacrificing network security,” said Senator Warner. “That’s why I’m joining Senator Cotton on a bipartisan bill to ensure states do not purchase equipment or services from companies that pose national security risks – such as Huawei and ZTE.”

The Federal government has taken steps to not just bar Federal agencies from using technologies that may pose a national security risk, but to help service providers rip and replace equipment from Chinese-based telecommunications companies through legislation, such as the Secure and Trusted Communications Networks Reimbursement Program.

The bill includes a pre-auction funding for the Department of Defense (DoD) to research sharing and commercial use in the 3.1 to 3.45 GHz band.

The section on spectrum auctions says once the bill is enacted, USD 50 million from the Spectrum Relocation Fund would be transferred to the DoD for research, planning, and other activities for efficient spectrum use for the purpose of making the band available, including reallocating spectrum for shared federal and non-federal licensed users and conducting an auction.

Once identified, the FCC would start an auction process no earlier than November 30, 2024, to grant new spectrum licenses. Mid-band frequencies are a prime target for 5G services because they provide a sweet spot of coverage and capacity. The 3.5 GHz band is used by many countries globally for 5G. Portions of 3 GHz band are occupied by Federal users in the US, such as DoD radar operations, though the FCC has already auctioned spectrum in the 3.5 GHz (CBRS) and 3.7 GHz (C-band) ranges. This October, the FCC is auctioning 100 megahertz in the 3.45–3.55 GHz band.

The Senate needs to process relevant amendments and pass this bill. If it passes the Senate, the bill then moves to the House, where progressive Democrats are likely to continue to push for more funding and Republicans will likely balk. The outcome of this legislative package will also likely set the stage for the next big debate over Biden’s more ambitious spending package, which totals USD 3.5 trillion. That package includes programs and services for items like childcare, tax breaks, and healthcare. Republicans strongly oppose that legislation, which Democrats hope to pursue through a budget reconciliation process that would require only a simple majority vote in both chambers.

The legislation took an important step forward on Saturday, when 67 lawmakers including 18 Republicans voted to limit debate on the measure, comfortably surpassing a 60-vote threshold required for most legislation in the 100-seat Senate.

But unless all 100 senators consent to expedite the process, passage would have to wait until Monday or Tuesday under parliamentary rules that require legislation to move forward slowly and in stages.

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