Smart Spending: Congress Can Make Comm Infrastructure Funding Count
Support for research and due diligence now could save billions down the road.
by Martha DeGrasse
Democrats in Congress and the White House are characterizing President Joe Biden’s $1.9 trillion stimulus plan as an economic relief package and saying that a separate infrastructure spending bill should be next. An infrastructure bill made it through the House of Representatives last summer but lacked support from Congressional Republicans and the Trump Administration.
With millions of Americans working and studying from home, now is a good time to advocate for spending on communications infrastructure. But throwing money at the digital divide is not enough. Consider recent federal initiatives meant to improve communications infrastructure in the United States. Some of these risk falling far short of their potential because parameters used to allocate funds are flawed.
The most current example is, of course, the Rural Digital Opportunity Fund. Originally designed to funnel $16 billion to rural broadband in Phase 1, the reverse auction ended up awarding $9.2 billion to auction participants, since low bidders prevail. Some rural areas without access to broadband were left out of the RDOF altogether because of the maps the FCC used to assign the awards. Then Commissioner and now FCC Acting Chairwoman Jessica Rosenworcel pointed out last year that those maps excluded census blocks if people in just one part of the block had broadband access, making the entire census block ineligible for RDOF funding.
Now the winning RDOF bidders will submit long-form applications offering more detail about their plans. Congress is urging the Commission to hold feet to the fire if necessary. One day before former FCC Chairman Ajit Pai packed up his giant coffee mug and returned to the private sector, he received a letter signed by Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-MN), Rep. James Clyburn (D-SC), Rep. Tim Walberg (R-MI) and Sen. John Thune (R-SD). “We ask that the FCC redouble its efforts to review the long-form applications that will now be submitted,” the bipartisan group wrote. “Without proper due diligence today, we fear that we will not know whether funds were improperly spent for years to come.”
They may be reacting to the RDOF’s allocation of large amounts of money to unproven providers, such as Elon Musk’s SpaceX, which has very recently started offering internet service using low earth orbit satellites. SpaceX committed to serve rural areas in 35 states, more than any other bidder. It is unclear what incremental costs, if any, the satellite operator will incur in extending its service to rural areas, so it’s not surprising that SpaceX was able to underbid competitors. It’s $880 million RDOF award may be frustrating to its terrestrial competitors, but early reviews of its Starlink internet service are positive, so it could end up benefiting rural consumers if they can afford the service.
Connectivity for rural America will also be impacted by another federal spending program: the $1.9 billion in subsidies approved by Congress to help smaller carriers “rip and replace” network equipment classified as a possible national security risk, Inside Towers reported. Chinese vendors Huawei and ZTE indirectly helped many rural Americans get connected to mobile networks by selling equipment to regional operators at lower price points than non-Chinese vendors. Now, those operators need to tell the FCC how they will replace that equipment in order to receive subsidies to cover the cost.
It’s a fair bet that some of these operators will take this opportunity to upgrade their networks to 5G. So the federal government has an opportunity to be proactive here rather than just reactive. The government has told carriers what they can’t do, but the harder job is setting requirements for what should be done to ensure security as networks move towards more open standards and more diverse supplier sets. It’s complicated by the fact that 3GPP is an international standard that needs to accommodate a range of nations, some of whom prioritize security more than others.
Whether or not Congress passes a big infrastructure spending bill, the communications industry is set to get another $9 billion through the 5G Fund for Rural America. Like the RDOF, the 5G Fund will award contracts through a reverse auction. But unlike the RDOF, this program could use updated maps to determine which areas of the country should be eligible for funding. In December, Congress finally approved $65 million to fund the Broadband Data Act, which directs the FCC to create more accurate maps of broadband data access, Inside Towers reported.
The stakes could hardly be higher. Communities without reliable connectivity cannot attract corporate investment and the jobs that come with it. Rural Americans who lack access to broadband are disadvantaged in terms of education, healthcare, job training and remote work opportunities. One of the many lessons of 2020 was that remote work makes sense in a variety of settings. This can be great news for rural Americans, if they can connect to opportunities. But if federal policies meant to bridge the digital divide continue to leave rural America behind, groups of Americans who already feel betrayed by their government will have one more reason to feel disenfranchised, angry, and possibly even violent.
If Congress is ready to allocate more money for communications infrastructure, members should focus on funding the mundane detail work that adds value to the big bill headlines. $65 million for better maps will go a long way towards getting $9 billion in 5G funding to the places that need it most. Likewise, the senators who want the FCC to perform thorough due diligence on the RDOF winners should make sure the agency has funding to do this. And members of Congress who have continually called for sanctions on Huawei and its equipment should now prioritize funding to study the feasibility of security standards for America’s 5G networks.