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Congress grills NTIA chief about broadband funding rules

The Senate Commerce Committee peppered NTIA chief Alan Davidson with questions about how his agency will distributed billions in broadband funding during a two-hour oversight hearing, homing in on recently released rules around pricing, labor and technology requirements for funding recipients.

Last month, the NTIA published funding guidelines for a number of broadband programs through which $45 billion will flow to the states. Among other things, the rules require funding recipients to offer affordable service plan options, show proof their workforce is sufficiently skilled if they are using non-union labor and prioritize projects which use fiber technology wherever feasible.

Several members of the committee, including Senators Roger Wicker, John Thune and Deb Fischer argued such requirements will unnecessarily burden the states and service providers receiving the money. “With each of these added objectives you’re making margins thinner and you’re increasing costs which means less money for deployment,” Fischer stated. They claimed such regulations went against the intent of Congress when it passed the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act, through which the broadband funding was allocated.

Davidson, however, contended that’s not the case at all. Asked whether the pricing rule amounted to de facto rate regulation, for instance, he argued the NTIA’s guidelines allow for plenty of flexibility in how states ensure the affordable tier requirement is met.

“The heart of this is we believe affordability is a critical component of what we’re trying to achieve here. The statute tells us that it is and we know that affordability is not a luxury, it is a necessity. If we build access and people cannot, families cannot afford to get online we will not have met our goal,” he said. “We expect different states are going to approach this different ways. Nowhere in here do we set a price for broadband.”

On the subject of whether the rules preference unions, he said they aren’t designed to preclude certain workers, but rather to ensure the thousands of jobs the funding creates are safe and well-paid.

Davidson also pushed back against assertions from some senators and industry groups including the Wireless Internet Service Providers Associations (WISPA) that the NTIA’s fiber preference in the Broadband Equity, Access, and Deployment (BEAD) program rules violated Congress’ intent to support a technologically neutral approach and will hinder rollouts. He pointed out its guidelines allow for other technologies and the agency fully expects there will be a mix of fiber, fixed wireless and satellite deployments fueled by BEAD grants.

Still, Davidson acknowledged there are some questions the funding guidelines left unanswered, but said clarification around things like permitting, pole attachments and what constitutes a high-cost area are forthcoming. IITP

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