Democrats in the House Committee on Energy and Commerce sent a letter to National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA) Chief Alan Davidson this week outlining five "key priorities" for the broadband grant funding his agency will oversee.
Specifically, members of Congress discussed three new broadband grant programs funded by the infrastructure legislation: the $42.45 billion Broadband Equity, Access, and Deployment (BEAD) Program; a $2.75 billion digital equity program; and a $1 billion grant fund for middle mile deployments.
Alan Davidson pictured at his confirmation hearing for NTIA head on December 1, 2021.
"We believe the success of the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law's broadband programs will require an emphasis on affordability, digital inclusion, high-capacity networks, competition, and community engagement," wrote the lawmakers.
The letter from House Dems follows the conclusion of a public comment period that saw the industry weigh in on rulemaking for the grant programs and comes as the NTIA is preparing to release a notice of funding opportunity in May.
Affordability and digital inclusion
On the issue of affordability, Democrats urged Davidson "to make the low-cost offering requirement in the BEAD program as widely available as feasible" and noted that participation by providers in the Federal Communications Commission's (FCC's) Affordable Connectivity Program (ACP) "cannot be enough to meet the BEAD program's low-cost offering."
They also pointed to the fact that the legislation prioritizes unserved locations, followed by underserved locations and anchor institutions, but that it also "permits NTIA to designate other eligible uses that facilitate the program's goals."
To that end, lawmakers said that the NTIA should allow BEAD funds to be put toward digital inclusion efforts "as outlined in the Digital Equity Act." As per the legislative text, that would include digital literacy training, tech support and obtaining "basic awareness of measures to ensure online privacy and cybersecurity."
Fund open access fiber networks
In addition to digital equity and inclusion, lawmakers emphasized the types of networks they want the NTIA to prioritize, even though the infrastructure law itself is tech neutral.
"We believe that Bipartisan Infrastructure Law funding should prioritize projects that implement fiber networks and other technologies that can be scalable to meet the speeds that consumers will demand in the future," they wrote.
Further, they said that grant recipients must demonstrate they have the "required technical and financial competencies" to deliver in the required timeframes, and must prioritize network resiliency "from the beginning stages of planning." They also urged the NTIA to look at the FCC's recent ruling on ISP relationships with multi-tenant environments "and incorporate those measures as appropriate in BEAD."
On promoting competition, the letter from members of Congress suggests that the NTIA give funding priority to open access networks. While the infrastructure law makes no mention of open access networks, some industry groups – like the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) – have argued that this model will reach more people with less funding.
Others, such as Shirley Bloomfield, president and CEO of NTCA – the Rural Broadband Association, have said such networks don't work as well in rural environments.
Asked in a House hearing last month whether the NTIA is considering wholesale, open access networks, Davidson said that the agency received "a huge number of comments" on the matter from the industry.
"We are thinking carefully about how we can best incorporate that in the program," said Davidson. "I don't have an answer for you. But it's very much front of mind."
— Nicole Ferraro, site editor, Broadband World News; senior editor, global broadband coverage, Light Reading. Host of "The Divide" on the Light Reading Podcast.