Newly released legislative text of the Senate’s $1 trillion bipartisan infrastructure plan – now titled the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act – explains that the bill proposes to spend $65 billion on broadband-related items, headlined by $42.45 billion in funding for a Broadband Equity, Access, and Deployment Program.

The legislation also includes billions in funding for Digital Equity grants, a tribal broadband connectivity fund, middle-mile broadband infrastructure deployment, along with rural telemedicine, distance learning, and broadband programs. The measure also would cut monthly prices on the Emergency Broadband Benefit program established in the American Rescue Plan.

The push in Congress to open the funding spigot on these and other tech fronts will be one of the underlying themes of the MerITocracy 2021 American Innovation Forum in November. The Forum will gather Capitol Hill and White House leadership, along with industry visionaries, for creative thinking at the nexus of policy and technology to help solve some of the largest problems facing the United States.

Broadband Equity, Access, and Deployment

The Broadband Equity, Access, and Deployment Program is the bill’s most ambitious shot at bridging the digital divide. That program will make grants available to underserved or unserved communities when it comes to broadband access.

“The persistent ‘digital divide’ in the United States is a barrier to the economic competitiveness of the United States and equitable distribution of essential public services, including health care and education,” the bill states.

The legislation would give the assistant secretary of Commerce for Communications and Information 180 days from enactment to set up the program. The bill also commissions a nationwide broadband data mapping initiative to help get an accurate picture of the nation’s underserved and unserved communities.

The bill further includes $1 billion over a five-year period to help build out middle-mile broadband infrastructure. The bill defines middle-mile infrastructure as broadband infrastructure that does not connect to an end-user. Some examples the legislation gives are undersea cables, and “transport connectivity to data centers.”

Digital Equity

The bill also takes an extra stab at working towards digital equity through the creation of two digital equity grant programs. That portion of the bill – the Digital Equity Act of 2021 – had been introduced in the Senate in June.

The Digital Equity Act, with $2.75 billion in funding from fiscal year 2022 (FY2022) to fiscal year 2026 (FY2026), outlines both a state digital equity grant program and a competitive digital equity grant program. The state grant program would have its funds distributed based on a funding formula, while the latter would reward funds based on a competitive application process.

The bill sets $2 billion in funding aside for a tribal broadband connectivity fund, and another $2 billion would go towards a rural telemedicine, distance learning, and broadband program. The Appalachian Regional Commission’s High Speed Internet Initiative also makes an appearance, with $100 million set aside over five years.

Adding up the cost

A change to the Emergency Broadband Benefit program also represents a chunk of the legislation’s broadband funding, according to an analysis from the Information Technology Industry Council.

The bill would also update and cut prices on the Emergency Broadband Benefit (EBB) program being run by the Federal Communications Commission. The EBB which currently lets citizens access plans as low as $50 per month, would be renamed the Affordable Connectivity Benefit program and cut the monthly prices on those affordable plans down to just $30 per month.

The program received initial funding of $7.17 billion in March’s American Rescue Plan. The program has $14.2 billion appropriated for its life cycle. The final $2.5 billion of the bill’s broadband funding would go towards a reconnecting communities pilot program.

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Lamar Johnson
Lamar Johnson
Lamar Johnson is a MeriTalk Staff Reporter covering the intersection of government and technology.
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