In the digital economy, broadband infrastructure is every bit as vital as roads and bridges. The Biden Administration’s ambitious American Jobs Plan is expected to provide $100 billion for broadband infrastructure and adoptions, with a goal to reach 100 percent high-speed broadband coverage in the U.S.
As General Counsel for the Rural Wireless Association and a leading advocate for rural broadband, Womble Bond Dickinson attorney Carri Bennet has been deeply involved in this conversation. She recently joined Broadband Breakfast for a video panel discussion on the American Jobs Plan and how it could impact broadband infrastructure and expansion.
Bennet noted that while the American Jobs Plan is exciting, it is only part of the national strategy needed to reach 100 percent broadband coverage.
“A lot of folks get really excited about the numbers, but this is over an eight-year period,” Bennet said. “It sounds like a lot of money when you add it all up, but it’s $100 billion total over eight years – roughly $12.5 billion a year.”
She noted that Congressional Democrats have introduced other legislation, such as the LIFT America Act, that also provides for broadband infrastructure funding and will be one of the vehicles targeted to move the Plan forward.
The American Jobs Plan also lacks specifics about how broadband infrastructure should be expanded, Bennet said.
“It does talk about ‘future-proofing’ and there are exciting things taking place in the wireless world that could future-proof networks,” Bennet said. “For example, using software to virtualize networks so you don’t have to change antennas on towers any longer or replace hardware.”
She said broadband infrastructure money from the American Jobs Act may flow to state and/or local governments to decide exactly how it should be used instead of utilizing reverse auctions to distribute funding, as is currently being done by the FCC. The recent Rural Development Opportunity Fund reverse auction distribution plan used by the FCC has severe shortcomings and is a cautionary tale of why reverse auctions should be avoided. Rural America loses out when there is a race to the bottom to provide broadband services. Rural Americans should be at parity with urban Americans when it comes to broadband speed and throughput.
With respect to the FCC’s recent RDOF auction, Bennet is concerned. “The FCC has tried to use reverse auctions to get funding to rural areas. You don’t get the superior technology this way,” Bennet said. “If the FCC is not diligent in its review of the reverse auction bidders, we will end up not having broadband built out in the required six years.” She said a grant-based funding approach may produce better outcomes for rural residents.
But despite the questions and the potential complications, Bennet said addressing broadband infrastructure expansion is a critical issue. The American Jobs Plan is a good step in the right direction but not a final one, and the devil is in ironing out the details.
“I think this is just the start of the conversation. We’re all going to have to do this together,” she said. “Without broadband, you can’t have economic development. But if we can get this out to rural America, we can bring all kinds of jobs to rural America.”
Joining Bennet in the virtual panel discussion were:
- Doug Brake, Director of Broadband and Spectrum Policy, Information Technology and Innovation Foundation (ITIF);
- Gary Bolton, President and CEO, the Fiber Broadband Association (FBA);
- Matt Wood, Vice President of Policy and General Counsel, Free Press; and
- Drew Clark (moderator), Editor and Publisher, Broadband Breakfast.
Click here to watch the full video of the “Billions and Billions: How to Spend Broadband Infrastructure” conversation.