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Senate Passes Massive Broadband Spending Bill

infrastructure
(Image credit: C-SPAN)

The Senate drew praise from cable ISPs and other telecom players Tuesday for its passage of the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act, which includes about $65 billion for deploying and subsidizing broadband to help close the digital divide.

The vote was 69 to 30, including 19 Republicans led by Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.).

“The bipartisan infrastructure legislation demonstrates that policymakers can find common ground on issues that are important for America’s future, including the need to get all Americans connected to robust and reliable broadband service," said Michael Powell, president of NCTA-The Internet & Television Association. "Most importantly, the broadband provisions directly address the two critical challenges we face in reaching our national goal of universal connectivity for all Americans – first, a focused effort to prioritize and build internet infrastructure in areas without service, and second, a stronger government program to help low-income Americans subscribe to and use this critical service. Our industry looks forward to being a productive partner in the effort to close existing digital gaps and to continuing our ongoing investment in networks that will speed our country on the path to 10 gigabit speeds. This legislation is the result of significant compromises and we would like to thank the bipartisan group of Senators who worked diligently to develop this important legislation and urge the House to swiftly pass this package.”

“We applaud the U.S. Senate for providing in the bipartisan infrastructure package $65 billion to expand access to critical broadband capabilities," said ACA Connects President Matthew Polka. "This historic investment would help all Americans stay close to their families, friends, and neighbors and engage in telework, telehealth, remote learning and other activities so fundamental to 21st Century society. This bill has the potential to connect many millions of unserved locations across the country and some 30 million households that have access to broadband but don't currently subscribe," he said, adding. "ACA Connects looks forward to Congress continuing to move forward on this important legislation, and we hope that the House of Representatives prioritizes broadband accessibility as it considers the important infrastructure challenges our nation faces.”

"Among the historic investments included in the bill is more than $48 billion in funding for the National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA) to fund state and local investments to help reach 100% access to affordable, high-speed broadband service," said Commerce Secretary Gina Raimondo. "This is among the most significant government investment in broadband access and infrastructure in American history, and is a critical component of President Biden’s Build Back Better agenda."

INCOMPAS, which represents competitive carriers and some Big Tech edge providers, also sounded pleased.

"Today the United States Senate moved one step closer to our transformative 'internet for all' goal that has the potential to bring faster speeds, lower prices and more competition to every family and small business across America," said INCOMPAS president Chip Pickering.

“While there is still much work to be done, the bipartisan commitment toward improving broadband access, deployment and affordability is significant," he said.

The bill includes money for both deployment to end users and for middle mile networks.

“I commend the Senate for passing the bipartisan infrastructure bill," said Steven K. Berry, president of the Competitive Carriers Association. "[I]t is an important step in ensuring all Americans have access to the latest broadband services. The legislation includes several broadband provisions important to CCA members, and we look forward to our continued work with Congress to help close the digital divide.”

"It should be said: This $65 billion infusion for broadband that cleared the Senate is a generational (and hopefully transformational) investment in network deployment, affordability, cybersecurity and digital equity," said USTelecom president Jonathan Spalter. "It’s far from perfect, but it represents progress on our shared universal connectivity goals."

On the "far from perfect side," Spalter pointed out that the came together quickly without a lot of debate, hearings or vetting, so "the inevitable unintended consequences are going to matter, maybe more than usual."

One question is how the FCC and NTIA exercise their discretion to define what is the reliable broadband the bill funds.

“Digital infrastructure is critical to strengthening the U.S. economy, connecting U.S. communities, and driving U.S. global leadership,” said Jason Oxman, president of tech group ITI. “We applaud the U.S. Senate’s passage of the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act, which includes transformative investments to renew U.S. infrastructure and prioritize digital needs, including resources to close the digital divide and bolster cybersecurity. We urge the U.S. House of Representatives to move expeditiously to advance this important measure.”

“Connect Americans Now applauds senators, on both sides of the aisle, who rightly recognized that broadband deployment, adoption and digital skills are critical infrastructure necessary to safeguard the American Dream in every community,” said CAN executive director Richard Cullen. “This bipartisan down payment on tackling the broadband gap will help ensure more Americans, living in both urban and rural areas, can acquire a quality education, access virtual health care tools and participate in the full promise of the 21st century digital economy.”

He also had some concerns, specifically that there is more that needs done if the digital divide is actually to be closed.

“This is an historic investment in broadband and one that will help put affordable, reliable connections in reach for Americans across the country," said Kathryn de Wit, project director of the broadband access initiative at The Pew Charitable Trusts. "Importantly, the infrastructure bill acknowledges the crucial role that states play in expanding broadband access. It also includes funds for broadband adoption and affordability, reflecting findings from Pew and others that achieving universal broadband access—and ensuring communities benefit from those connections when they’re available—will take more than building broadband networks.”

“CTA applauds the Senate for developing a bipartisan framework – and collaborating with the White House – to pass meaningful infrastructure legislation that would advance economic growth and innovation in the U.S. Efforts to update our digital infrastructure, which we need now more than ever, are key to realizing the future of game-changing innovations like 5G and self-driving vehicles," said Consumer Technology Association President Gary Shapiro. 

 “Though CTA does not seek or support government funding for our industry or membership, CTA commends the Senate and the administration for following our recommendation and funding some of these important investments in our national infrastructure from unused COVID-19 funds.” 

The Open Technology Institute applauded the bill's inclusion of a broadband truth-in-billing "nutrition" label, which OTI had pushed for.

“We are pleased to see price transparency in the bill, including the broadband nutrition label that OTI first proposed in 2009," said Joshua Stager, deputy director for broadband and competition policy. "Internet pricing is far too opaque, rife with hidden fees and confusing terms. A truth-in-billing label will help consumers comparison shop, hold their providers accountable, and better understand what they’re paying for."

"In a historic first for federal broadband funding, this agreement also recognizes the importance of ensuring that companies who receive these funds adhere to high labor standards," said the Communications Workers of America. "The proposed legislation, which creates a new state broadband grant fund to expand high-speed internet service, prioritizes broadband projects from entities that have a demonstrated record of and plans to be in compliance with Federal labor and employment laws."

“Today the U.S. Senate took a major step forward toward ensuring that fiber broadband is available to every American, said Gary Bolton, president of FBA-Fiber Broadband Association. "The Fiber Broadband Association is encouraged by the bipartisan Senate support in recognizing that broadband is as much a part of the country’s critical infrastructure as roads and bridges. Indeed, broadband is the bridge to global competitiveness and economic prosperity in the 21st Century. This Administration and this Congress have the opportunity to make a historical investment in our country’s fiber broadband future that will benefit generations to come. The forward-looking standards for network deployment included in this legislation will help ensure digital equity and enable every community to leverage the economic and societal benefits that only fiber can deliver."

Vice President Kamala Harris, who was put in charge of closing the digital divide, said the bill ensures that "our nation won't have to go to a fast food parking lot to get high-speed Internet." 

Sen. Mitt Romney (R-Utah), who helped negotiate the compromise bill, said the bill turns years of talk about fixing infrastructure "turns that talk into reality."

John Eggerton

Contributing editor John Eggerton has been an editor and/or writer on media regulation, legislation and policy for over four decades, including covering the FCC, FTC, Congress, the major media trade associations, and the federal courts. In addition to Multichannel News and Broadcasting + Cable, his work has appeared in Radio World, TV Technology, TV Fax, This Week in Consumer Electronics, Variety and the Encyclopedia Britannica.