The bipartisan group of senators led by Sens. Kyrsten Sinema (D., Ariz.) and Rob Portman (R., Ohio,) who have been negotiating infrastructure legislation, late yesterday unveiled a 2,700-page bill, which Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D., N.Y.) immediately moved as an amendment in the nature of a substitute (ANoS) to the placeholder vehicle, the INVEST in America Act (HR 3684), and called for beginning the amendment process immediately.
"Given how bipartisan the bill is, and how much work has already been put in to get the details right, I believe the Senate can quickly process relevant amendments and pass this bill in a matter of days," he said. "Then, I will move the Senate along the second track of our infrastructure effort and take up the budget resolution," which is expected to include provisions of the Biden administration’s American Jobs and Families Plan that were not included in the bipartisan infrastructure bill.
The bill includes $42.45 billion in funding for grants for broadband deployment in areas with broadband access at less than 25 megabits per second downstream and 3 Mbps upstream to be administered by the National Telecommunications and Information Administration. Although there had been proposals for setting symmetrical requirements for funded projects, the bills says that the minimum speeds for supported projects would be 100 Mbps/20 Mbps.
There would be a minimum grant of $100 million for each state, with $100 million to be divided among the U.S. Virgin Islands, Guam, American Samoa, and the Northern Mariana Islands, with the remainder of the funding to be allocated based on the percentage of U.S. unserved locations located in each state or territory.
NTIA would make grants to states, territories, or the District of Columbia, and those governments in turn would make competitively awarded subgrants for broadband deployment; connecting anchor institutions; broadband data collection, mapping, and planning; installing Internet and Wi-Fi infrastructure or providing reduced-cost broadband within a multi-family residential building with a substantial share of unserved households or that has a percentage of households at or below 150% of the poverty line higher than the national average; broadband adoption; or any use determined necessary by the NTIA administrator to facilitate the goals of the program.
Subgrantees would be required to meet quality-of-service standards established by NTIA; to comply with "prudent cybersecurity and supply chain risk management practices," as specified by NTIA; to incorporate network resiliency and reliability best practices as defined by NTIA; and to not use grant funds to purchase or support equipment deemed a national security threat to communications networks under the Secure and Trusted Communications Act or, subject to possible waiver by NTIA, any fiber optic cable and optical transmission equipment manufactured in the People’s Republic of China.
In making grants, states and territories could not exclude cooperatives, nonprofit organizations, public-private partnerships, private companies, public or private utilities, public utility districts, or local governments from eligibility. They would have to establish a process to challenge project eligibility, including unserved or underserved status of a covered location. They also would have to require 25% in matching support from subgrantees "except in high-cost areas or as otherwise provided by this Act."
NTIA would provide assistance to government applicants to facilitate their participation in the program, as well as technical assistance on issues such as prioritizing rural areas and accessing federal cybersecurity resources.
Nothing in the bill would authorize NTIA to regulate broadband service rates.
The bill also includes $2.75 billion for digital equity programs to be administered by NTIA, including state digital equity capacity grants and digital equity competitive grants, with $300 million available each year from fiscal year 2022 through 2026.
It would authorize $1 billion for middle-mile grants that could cover up to 70% of a project, which would be subject to interconnection and nondiscrimination requirements. The program would be administered by NTIA. Eligible entities include states and their political subdivisions; tribal governments’ technology companies; electric utilities; utility cooperatives; public utility districts; telecommunications companies; telecommunications cooperatives; nonprofit foundations; nonprofit corporations; nonprofit institutions; nonprofit associations; regional planning counsels; Native entities; and economic development authorities, as well as partnerships of any eligible entities.
The bill would extend the enhanced low-income broadband household subsidy previously established as the Emergency Broadband Benefit Program, renaming it the Affordable Connectivity Benefit Program, and providing $14.2 billion in additional funding for the program. It would decrease the monthly subsidy amount from $50 to $30. In addition, it would direct the FCC to adopt consumer protection rules barring, among other things, inappropriate upselling or downselling by providers participating in the program.
The bill would also require the FCC to report to Congress on "the options of the Commission for improving its effectiveness in achieving the universal service goals for broadband in light of this Act and the amendments made to this Act, and other legislation that addresses those goals." It would require the FCC to adopt rules regarding broadband consumer labels and rules to facilitate digital equal access.
It would direct the Government Accountability Office to report on the FCC’s processes for setting broadband speed thresholds.
During the course of floor discussion today, Majority Leader Schumer reiterated his call for beginning the amendment process. "Let’s start voting on amendments. The longer it takes to finish the bill, the longer we’ll be here," he said.
Some Republican senators pushed back against the idea of moving swiftly through the amendment process.
Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R., Ky.) said, "Our full consideration of this bill must not be choked off by any artificial timetable that our Democratic colleagues may have penciled out for political purposes."
Sen. John Thune (R., S.D.), the ranking member of the Senate Commerce, Science, and Transportation Committee, said that "first, senators need time to digest the bill" and then will need time to draft and propose amendments.
Sen. John Cornyn (R., Texas) said that he is "eager to see a score from the Congressional Budget Office to determine a true cost for this bill." He added, "The bill should not be rushed through the Senate without an opportunity for all members to read it and understand it. … Since this is the first time many of us have seen this bill, it should be subject to an open amendment process."
At TR Daily’s news deadline, the Senate voted 95-5 to adopt a bipartisan amendment to the 2,700-page ANoS, which was offered by Sens. Thune and Jon Tester (D., Mont.). Sen. Tester explained that the amendment would "help us better understand how many folks we need" for broadband deployment jobs, as well as help ensure their safety. —Lynn Stanton, [email protected]
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