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House Commerce Democrats Propose $40 Billion for Broadband Buildout In Newest Version of Infrastructure Bill

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 You’re reading the Benton Foundation’s Weekly Digest, a recap of the biggest (or most overlooked) telecommunications stories of the week. The digest is delivered via e-mail each Friday.

Round-Up for the Week of May 13-17, 2019

Robbie McBeath

The week was jam-packed with broadband news [Seriously, see the Quick Bits and Weekend Reads below]. There was an oversight hearing of the Federal Communications Commission, Rep. James Clyburn (D-SC) launched the House Task Force on Rural Broadband, and we saw the FCC approve the first wave of funding from the Connect America Fund Phase II auction.

Lost in the whirlwind of news, perhaps, was an important announcement: All the Democrats on the House Commerce Committee unveiled the newest version of a comprehensive infrastructure package — and it includes billions for broadband network buildout.

The LIFT America Act

House Commerce Committee Chairman Frank Pallone (D-NJ) led the way, introducing the Leading Infrastructure For Tomorrow’s (LIFT) America Act. The bill is a sweeping infrastructure package that aims to “rebuild America through investments in combating climate change, expanding broadband access and protecting public health and the environment.”

The bill provides funds targeted at expanding broadband access and implementing Next Generation 9-1-1 services.

I. Broadband Internet Access Service Programs 

The bill aims to fully fund — at $40 billion — the FCC’s estimated cost for ensuring high-speed, reliable broadband is deployed to at least 98% of the U.S. Thirty billion dollars would be awarded by the FCC through a national reverse auction, a mechanism that relies on competitive bids from broadband providers to efficiently deploy networks to areas that don’t have broadband internet service today. This program would be separate from the FCC’s current Universal Service Fund programs.

House Commerce Committee Chairman Frank Pallone
House Commerce Committee Chairman Frank Pallone (D-NJ)

Preference would be given to projects that:

  • Have at least 20% matching funds from private sources;
  • Provide high(er)-speed broadband;
  • Set early completion dates; and
  • Serve low-income communities.

Funding recipients would not be required to be designated as eligible telecommunications carriers

The FCC would be required to allocate to states the remaining $10 billion. Within ten years, states would be required to:

  • Use a statewide reverse auction,
  • Focus on unserved areas, and 
  • Only direct funds to underserved areas if the no longer has any unserved areas.

States are to conduct separate reverse auctions for awards made to unserved anchor institutions.

II. Broadband Infrastructure Finance and Innovation

The LIFT America Act would create the Broadband Infrastructure Finance and Innovation Act (BIFIA) program at the National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA) and authorize $5 billion in federal funding for the BIFIA program to make low-interest financing available for broadband infrastructure deployment projects.

BIFIA is modeled after two similarly authorized infrastructure programs, which were created under the Water Infrastructure Finance and Innovation Act (WIFIA) and the Transportation Infrastructure Finance and Innovation Act (TIFIA). Under the BIFIA program, a wide range of eligible entities — including state and local governments, private companies, and public-private partnerships — could apply for secured loans, lines of credit, or loan guarantees to finance broadband infrastructure buildout projects.

III. Smart Cities

The bill also provides a whole host of funding for advancing clean energy infrastructure; Smart Communities infrastructure is included.  

The legislation provides $850 million over five years to spur the development of Smart Communities infrastructure through technical assistance, grants, and training. The bill would authorize the Department of Energy’s proposed Cities, Counties, and Communities energy program to provide technical assistance and competitive grants for clean energy solutions in development and redevelopment efforts. It also funds technical assistance to be provided by the national labs to cities and towns looking to deploy smart community infrastructure. The legislation would expand the Department of Commerce smart cities demonstration project to include small and medium cities and towns.

IV. Next Generation 9-1-1

The LIFT America Act authorizes the Next Generation 9-1-1 Implementation Coordination Office (ICO is a joint effort between NTIA and the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration) to provide $12 billion in grants over five years for the implementation of Next Generation 9-1-1 services. The Next Generation 9-1-1 service would protect American lives by making 9-1-1 service more resilient and by allowing callers to send text messages, images, or videos to 9-1-1 to help first responders better assess the nature of emergencies and protect callers when they can’t speak to 9-1-1 dispatchers.

The Future of the LIFT America Act

House Commerce Committee Democrats initially introduced the LIFT America Act in May of 2017, when they were in the minority. In the aftermath of the 2018 elections, Democrats now have the majority with more control over agendas and priorities. The Commerce Committee will be holding the hearing LIFT America: Modernizing Our Infrastructure for the Future on May 22, 2019.

The new bill follows the discussion that took place at the White House recently between Democrats and President Trump on working together on an infrastructure bill. As of this writing, there is no companion bill in the Senate. 

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