The new $1.2 trillion infrastructure bill is a major step towards increasing affordable internet access to those experiencing the ramifications of the digital divide. But can the FCC truly deliver on its promises? “It’s important to recognize that there’s a lot more work ahead,” says Tyler Cooper, editor in chief of BroadbandNow.com.
In this broad-ranging conversation with BroadbandNow’s Managing Director John Busby, Tyler focuses his expertise on the impact of this high-profile bill and the FCC’s expectations for the future of broadband. Leading broadband initiatives outlined in the bill are essentially replacements for past programs, marking a renewed push to provide high-speed internet access in rural America by 2025. As we’ve seen in the past, states and the 2,000+ U.S. internet service providers are key to the success of these programs, but – as Tyler explains – the FCC will play an even bigger role in the wake of this significant bill.
(The following transcript has been lightly edited for clarity.)
|John Busby:||Hi, everybody. My name’s John Busby. I’m the managing director of BroadbandNow, and I am joined today by Tyler Cooper, the editor in chief of BroadbandNow. Hi, Tyler. How’re you doing?|
|Tyler Cooper:||Hey, doing great. Thanks for having me, John. Appreciate it.|
|John Busby:||Yeah, you got it. So big news in the world of broadband access – affordability with an infrastructure bill that passed; it’d been talked about for a while. I’d love to dive in with you today on what you think it means for the digital divide, what your expectations of the bill are and any other thoughts you have? So let me just get right into it. So the large infrastructure bill was passed and included a bunch of stuff, but what does it include that is designed to help broadband internet access or affordability?|
|Tyler Cooper:||Absolutely. So you’re right. The bill includes a number of programs specifically geared toward improving both broadband infrastructure deployment and internet affordability across the country. So it’s sort of two pronged as we’ve seen in the past, but this is particularly looking at unserved and rural communities. So the lion’s share of the allocated funds are going to go to two programs – the Broadband Equity, Access & Deployment Program, as you mentioned, and the Affordable Connectivity Fund. So yeah, there’s a lot of other programs in this, but I mean, overall, we can call this the most significant piece of infrastructure spending in the broadband space ever, really. And although the total amount has been reduced, we had an initial 100 billion being touted earlier in the year. This still represents one of the most significant efforts going specifically toward targeting rural and unserved Americans in the history of America.|
|John Busby:||Well, that’s great. I mean, obviously we would’ve liked the 100 billion, but let’s talk about what the infrastructure build does do. So you first mentioned the Broadband Equity, Access & Deployment Program. So what is it designed to do? Does it replace anything? How much money was allocated? And sort of what’s notable about this program?|
|Tyler Cooper:||Certainly. Yeah. You could see this as a replacement of sorts for prior FCC programs, but really it’s going to run concurrent with things like the RDOF and other programs. So it’s not necessarily a complete replacement, but it is significant for several reasons. One, the program contains $42.45 billion, and that is essentially subsidy money going to internet service providers to build out infrastructure for the internet in unserved communities.
So on the surface, similar to programs we’ve seen in the past, the major noteworthy difference here is that the new program is going to be the first major funding initiative to rely on the FCC’s new geospatial mapping, which is an improved mapping process which is currently in development. Active development is for a likely 2022 release. Not exactly sure when, but that’s what we know so far. And the maps are widely expected to be a big improvement in terms of accuracy, specifically over the longstanding Form 477 deployment data, which you and I both know, and most people who listen to this probably are very aware, it’s been widely criticized over the years. So this will be the first program to take advantage of those maps. And it will be sort of the next evolution of funding initiatives coming directly from the FCC.
|John Busby:||So that’s great. Better maps, more money. Let’s talk a little bit about the potential timeline like, and I know that not everything’s been released yet, but let’s suppose that an internet service provider is interested in receiving subsidies and bids and then get some money … like, can you speculate as to when build-outs would actually begin?|
|Tyler Cooper:||Sure. Yeah. I mean, so right now we only have a rough timeline, as you mentioned for the build-out program specifically, but the FCC is looking to complete the broadband maps again, likely in 2022 for public release. So I’m hoping personally for Q1, Q2 to release that data. And once that’s done, the government will essentially send a notice to each state that just basically says two things as I understand it: One will be [that] it’ll contain the estimated amount of funding available to that state. And two, it’ll invite the state to submit initial proposals for grants. And by initial proposals, I believe the National Telecommunication and Information Administration, NTIA, will be distributing an initial 4.245 billion. So 10 percent, essentially, of the total allotment to states with like the first round, when that happens. Regardless of when that happens, ISPs on their end will have a total of four years after being awarded a subgrant via this program to begin offering service to every customer that they are essentially pledging – unless the state that the ISP operates in grants an extension on the deadline. So there’s not too much specific around this, but essentially construction must be underway or there must be an extenuating circumstance in a state that requires an extension. So broad strokes, four years.|
|John Busby:||Okay. So let’s say it’s a rural area with very limited broadband access. By 2025, we would expect that community either to have access or ground to be broken in the build-out on underway.|
|Tyler Cooper:||Precisely. And it’s important to notice that 10 percent, right? So the total 42.45 billion being allocated to the program is going to be available until the funds are completely expended. So really I think it’s important to look at this as more of a long-term, major project in many areas of the country. This is going to be ongoing, much like the RDOF.|
|John Busby:||Okay. Well, that’s great. So we just talked about access, getting more people physically able to get wired broadband internet, but let’s talk about the other part of affordability and the Affordable Connectivity Fund. That’s a new name, right? What is it designed to do? How much money? How is it allocated? What’s notable and how is it different than the current program, which is called the Emergency Broadband Benefit?|
|Tyler Cooper:||Exactly. Yeah. You just nailed it on the head, really. So the bill is setting aside 14.2 billion for the Affordable Connectivity Fund, which really can be seen as a sort of successor to the ongoing Emergency Broadband Benefit. So they will run concurrently until the EBB runs out of funds. So … but the big difference is this will allow eligible households to subscribe to broadband service for a reduced rate much like the EBB, but the subsidy is going to be reduced, unfortunately. So it’s $30 per month instead of $50 per month. Now, so it’s reduced down from that. So $20 less than the existing program. The sort of side benefit of that though, is that it’s going to be made available to more Americans by extending it to homes at or below 200 percent of the federal poverty line. The EBB currently is 135 percent qualifier. So it’s sort of a trade-off of being a lower subsidy, but being available to a wider body of Americans.|
|John Busby:||So if my income is less than 200 percent of the poverty line, and I sign up for an internet service provider, a $60 plan, I’ll get like a $30 voucher, $30 off my bill. Is that how to think about that?|
|Tyler Cooper:||Correct. And that’s going to be from participating providers, which we expect the FCC to probably publish an official list soon.|
|John Busby:||Okay. Okay, good. All right. So we talked a little bit about the funding specifically for states. You talked about that. When we were preparing for this call, you also mentioned that the federal government had some different definitions, I guess you could say, for what qualifies as broadband, as part of the Broadband Equity, Access & Deployment build-out.|
|John Busby:||So what has it been previously and what is it now?|
|Tyler Cooper:||Sure. So the federal standard has been and remains 25, 3, so 25 megabits downloaded and three megabits upload for just the definition of broadband service. But that definition has been both academic and also practical because we’ve used that for virtually all the major funding initiatives we’ve had over the last half decade – plus since it was last changed in 2015. And although this bill doesn’t specifically alter the federal definition for broadbands, it does signal in my mind, a broader shift in how these new funding initiatives will be measured in general. Originally some Democrat lawmakers pushed for a symmetrical standard to be used in this bill for the first time. So that was going to be something like 100 over 100. And that was specifically for the infrastructure subsidies and the sort of plans that they’ll be built on, but a final standard for the program was ultimately decided, and it was 100 megabits download and 20 megabits per second upload.
So still a marked increase from the sort of federal high-level definition. And again, it’s the largest shift upward in terms of requirements for a major federal broadband program in over half a decade. So although it doesn’t change the definition at large, it does – since this is going to be obviously a very major funding initiative – it does sort of change the state of play when it comes to what type of service will be built out and what standards it’ll be held to.
|John Busby:||And in practical terms, in areas where there’s competition in the U.S., most folks have access to 100 megs download. And if this extends this to rural and underserved areas, I think that’ll be a big deal.|
|John Busby:||At the same time, we have high standards at BroadbandNow. And when you step back, Tyler, what’s still missing as far as part of the package, whether it’s underfunding, whether it’s a policy issue? This seems like it’s going to take a bunch of steps towards what we all want, every American having access to affordable, wired broadband speeds, but might not get all the way there. So what do you think’s still missing?|
|Tyler Cooper:||Yeah. I mean, John, I’ve been thinking about this a lot obviously. And out of the gate, it’s important to consider that the passing of this bill is cause for celebration. This is a major funding initiative. It’s being called a game changer and it really is in many ways, but at the same time on big sort of occasions such as this, in this space, as you know, it’s important to recognize that there’s a lot more work ahead after the sort of announcement and the grand plans to make sure that the funds are used to actually help Americans who need the most. This is something we’ve talked about a ton over the years. And we still don’t know one thing: We still don’t know exactly how much of an improvement the new FCCs maps will be, which is going to be absolutely vital for focusing efforts on internet deserts, and areas that have been, long been ignored by previous attempts at closing the digital divide for one reason or another.
And sort of a tangential element of that is that there was some pretty promising language in the initial bill about prioritizing community broadband efforts in areas where that made sense. And so things like municipal providers, which we talk about a ton, that language was ultimately removed in the final bill. So I think, it’s my opinion that I still believe municipal providers have a very important place in this conversation. So I’d love to see some more from the FCC in regard to that. There’s a few additional programs within this bill that do kind of go into that a bit. For instance, there was two billion for broadband grants and loans distributed by the Department of Agriculture.
And there was also 600 million, I believe, for private activity bonds for broadband projects. So states will be receiving some of that funding. But I think that overall, again, the devil’s in the details and with this program, it’s such a monumental step forward, but it’s sort of using data we haven’t seen yet. So I think that’s the big question in my mind … it’s just, getting our hands on that data, seeing where this money is going to be targeted, seeing how specific that targeting is. That’ll really tell us where we’re at in terms of the state of play for this program.
|John Busby:||Makes a lot of sense. Thanks, Tyler, for continuing to be focused on this issue. And thanks for talking to me today.|
|Tyler Cooper:||Absolutely. Thank you, John.|