Infrastructure Bill Passed by Senate Includes Historic, Bipartisan Broadband Provisions

To boost internet access, measure would provide $65 billion, establish new federal standards, and empower states to lead

Infrastructure Bill Passed by Senate Includes Historic, Bipartisan Broadband Provisions
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A sweeping $1.2 trillion infrastructure bill passed by the Senate on Aug. 10 would invest $65 billion in fast and reliable broadband infrastructure, affordability, and adoption. The Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act also would provide hundreds of billions of dollars for roads, high-speed rail, and other projects.  

The Senate measure, awaiting action by the House, represents a historic moment in national broadband policy; the size and scope of the proposed investment acknowledge the challenges at hand and how critical high-speed internet access is to ensure America’s economic future. The COVID-19 pandemic, which forced millions to work, attend school, and conduct much of their lives online, has driven home that fast, reliable, and affordable broadband is a key component of the nation’s infrastructure.

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Three Steps to Universal Broadband Access

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Policymakers did not suddenly wake up during the COVID-19 pandemic and discover that millions of Americans lack access to an affordable, reliable high-speed broadband connection; they have heard that from community leaders, consumers and companies for years.

Still, the legislation reflects more than a decade of research on the digital divide with an approach that focuses on broadband deployment, affordability, and adoption in a single bill.  In addition, it acknowledges research by The Pew Charitable Trusts and others that has identified states as critical entities in achieving universal availability of affordable internet services. In fact, the bulk of the broadband funds in the bill —$42.5 billion–would be used to establish the Broadband Equity, Access, and Deployment Program (BEADP) to be administered by the Department of Commerce. The program would provide states with funds for broadband deployment and digital equity, as well as with support to help them meet congressional funding requirements.

Establishing the BEADP would continue a noteworthy shift in federal broadband policy that started last year with the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act and the American Rescue Plan Act. Both programs administer funds through states and make clear that the federal stimulus money can be used for broadband and related connectivity needs. 

State policymakers have steadily increased their broadband efforts since 2017. Many, for example, have pursued policy changes, allocated more funds for broadband deployment, and established offices to oversee programs. But the responses vary by state—such as how each defines broadband, the size of a state broadband office, which entities may provide connectivity within a state, and how much funding lawmakers  appropriate for deployment.

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State Strategies for Improving Broadband Access

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States differ in how they manage broadband deployment and which agencies or offices they task with identifying challenges, charting goals, and encouraging investment. Some states have a centralized office responsible for managing or coordinating broadband efforts. In others, multiple agencies have jurisdiction over broadband. More than half of states have established dedicated funds to support deployment of high-speed internet, and many have developed goals, plans, and maps for expansion of access.

The Senate bill accounts for these variabilities and provides a minimum of $100 million to each state for broadband deployment and equity. The measure also outlines requirements on spending to ensure effective efforts, such as stipulating that deployment grants must fund networks that offer minimum speeds of 100 megabits per second (Mbps) for downloads and 20 Mbps for uploads, and that are scalable to faster speeds.

The legislation spells out who may apply for state grants, including private sector entities, cooperatives, local governments, and nonprofit organizations. Finally, the Senate bill would enhance states’ capacity to manage these funds, making up to 5% of their funding allotments available for activities such as data collection, staff support, and local outreach and training. 

The bill’s drafters also sought to address frustrations from state and local governments regarding their level of participation in federal funding decisions. The measure would set a new process at the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) that would allow state and local governments to challenge the data in the broadband availability maps that inform funding decisions and make clear that they can submit their own data.

Additionally, to receive funding, states must complete a five-year action plan that outlines spending priorities; how those priorities advance efforts in economic development, telemedicine, and related initiatives; and how each state will help local governments bridge the digital divide. State programs would have to include local and regional governments in the planning process and allow them to comment on funding proposals submitted to federal reviewers.

Planning and coordination with local leaders will be critical in helping state policymakers assess challenges and set priorities for spending federal funds. Under the BEADP, states would be able to award grants for a range of efforts spelled out in the bill. Those include initiatives to connect unserved and underserved households and community anchor institutions such as schools, libraries, and health care facilities to broadband; collect and map broadband data; lead broadband planning efforts; install low-cost broadband in low-income neighborhoods; and establish broadband adoption programs that can provide affordable devices. Finally, the assistant commerce secretary in charge of the National Telecommunications and Information Administration may add additional allowable expenditures if they “facilitate the goals of the program.” 

This pragmatic approach establishes federal standards, offers support to fill gaps in state capacity, and empowers states to determine their specific needs—all of which Pew’s research has indicated are crucial to making broadband access a reality.

As the House takes up the infrastructure bill, Pew can provide research and resources to help lawmakers and the administration, as well as other national stakeholders, craft policies that will work.

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Key Lessons About Expanding Broadband Access

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Nationwide, at least 18 million—and perhaps more than 42 million—Americans lack access to broadband internet service, and millions more cannot afford a high-speed connection even if one is available. The significance of this access gap was thrust into the spotlight in 2020, when the COVID-19 pandemic forced millions of people to transition to working, learning, and performing other daily activities from home. This rapid shift led educators, employers, parents, and community leaders to echo what many policymakers and their partners have argued for the past decade: that reliable high-speed internet is essential for contemporary American life and that more action is needed to bridge the digital divide.

Pew recently established our Broadband Education and Training Initiative to provide no-cost support to 17 states and American Samoa as they launch or expand broadband programs. Alabama, Alaska, Connecticut, Idaho, Iowa, Louisiana, Nebraska, New York, Oklahoma, Oregon, Rhode Island, South Carolina, Utah, Vermont, Washington, Wisconsin, and Wyoming are all participating.

Over the next 12 months, participants will receive training, facilitated expert and peer-to-peer engagement, and assistance on a wide range of broadband issues. From program design to data strategies, these resources will help states develop evidence-based strategies and expand operational capacity to administer incoming federal funds. 

In the years ahead, Pew intends to continue collaborating with leaders and stakeholders at every level of government to ensure that all Americans—no matter where they live—have access to affordable, reliable broadband. 

Kathryn de Wit directs The Pew Charitable Trusts’ broadband access initiative.

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Fact Sheet

Aiming to Achieve High-Speed Internet Connectivity

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The Pew Charitable Trusts’ broadband access initiative works with state and federal lawmakers, researchers, and other partners to accelerate the nation’s progress to universal, affordable high-speed internet service.

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State's Leadership Role in Bridging Digital Divide

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The American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA), which President Joe Biden signed into law March 11, includes more than $362 billion that state and local governments can use to expand access to broadband services, with $350 billion from the Coronavirus State and Local Fiscal Recovery Funds and $10 billion from the Capital Projects Fund. The stimulus package represents a tremendous opportunity for state leaders to act to shrink the digital divide.

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How Should Broadband Be Regulated?

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One central question in the public discussion about expanding broadband access is regulation—specifically, whether broadband should be treated like a utility. It’s a question that Sherry Lichtenberg, deputy director of the National Regulatory Research Institute (NRRI), knows well.