According to a draft of the legislation published by NBC News, the broadband portion of the package will tie $40 billion in ISP subsidies — doled out via state and federal grants — to affordability commitments. It also extends the life of the Emergency Broadband Benefit consumer subsidy program, though it shrinks the monthly subsidy amount from $50 to $30.
The package “ensures every American has access to reliable high-speed internet with an historic investment in broadband infrastructure deployment, just as the federal government made a historic effort to provide electricity to every American nearly one hundred years ago,” according to a Wednesday White House statement.
The bill would specifically convert the EBB to the Affordable Connectivity Program, breathing new life into what started as temporary pandemic relief that some experts pointed to as a template for permanently helping low-income families afford modern internet connections. The only consumer-facing affordability program for internet services, the Federal Communications Commission’s Lifeline program, currently offers just $9.25 per month in subsidies.
Biden had earlier sought $100 billion from Congress in a spending plan for high-speed internet throughout the country, and though the current compromise falls short of that goal, some broadband advocates welcomed the reduced sum.
Jonathan Adelstein, president of the Wireless Infrastructure Association, said the bill settled upon practical parameters for funding eligibility that leave the door open for a variety of ISPs to participate. Some experts previously worried that the bill would only dole out subsidies to providers that could achieve 100/100 megabits per second download and upload speeds, which would essentially disqualify all ISPs that don’t primarily use fiber networks.
The package ultimately declared that providers are eligible for funding if they offer at least 100 megabits per second for downloads and 20 megabits per second for uploads.
“We applaud the approach taken by the bipartisan negotiators, who wisely recognized an all-of-the-above strategy offers the flexibility needed to meet rural consumers’ broadband needs better than relying on a single wireline technology,” Adelstein said in a Thursday statement.
The package also includes about $185 million to fund the Digital Equity Act, which aims to close gaps in digital literacy via two grant programs, and $500 million for a grant program to help tribes and other rural entities connect remote communities to the internet’s backbone.
These “middle-mile” projects will be granted priority if they “leverage existing rights-of-way, assets, and infrastructure to minimize financial, regulatory, and permitting challenges,” among other criteria. Grantees are encouraged to loop “anchor institutions,” such as schools and libraries, into the networks whenever feasible, according to the draft.
John Windhausen, executive director of the Schools, Health and Libraries Broadband Coalition, told Law360 that while the package rightly gives credit to the role community institutions play in extending connectivity, it failed to prioritize these institutions across the board.
“We are very pleased with the multiple references to anchor institutions and the bill’s recognition that they need gigabit connectivity,” he said. “Unfortunately, the [$40 billion] fund gives community anchor institutions third priority, after unserved and underserved areas. This would revert to a siloed approach to broadband that is uneconomic.”
–Additional reporting by Christopher Cole. Editing by Regan Estes.