I guess it’s inevitable that a $42.5 billion grant program would attract a lot of legislative action trying to set some parameters on how to spend the money. This was witnessed at the recent hearings at the House Commerce Committee’s Subcommittee on Communications and Technology which looked at issues that would expedite the deployment of broadband infrastructure. At the hearing, it was mentioned that the subcommittee was reviewing 32 House bills related to broadband infrastructure, many of the bills still in draft form. I’ve followed broadband legislation for decades, and I can’t ever recall seeing this much attention on broadband issues by federal legislators. Following are just a few bills that show the breadth of House legislation being considered:
Broadband Expansion and Deployment Fee Equity and Efficiency or “BEAD FEES” Act. This draft bill from Rep. Rick Allen of Georgia would require states that accept federal BEAD money to ensure that application fees charged by state and local governments are transparent, competitively neutral, and cost-based.
Reducing Barriers for Broadband on Federal Lands Act. Rep. Russ Fulcher of Idaho is drafting a bill that would eliminate the need for environmental or historic preservation reviews for deploying broadband projects on previously disturbed federal lands.
Timely Replacement Under Secure and Trusted for Early and Dependable Broadband Networks or “TRUSTED Broadband Networks” Act. Rep. Brett Guthrie of Kentucky would eliminate the requirement for an environmental or historic preservation review before removing and replacing network equipment that affects national security.
Facilitating DIGITAL Applications Act. Rep. Mariannette Miller-Meeks of Iowa wants the NTIA to update Congress on whether the Departments of Interior and Agriculture have created an online portal for tracking applications to deploy communications infrastructure on federal property.
The Broadband Incentives for Communities Act (H.R. 1241). Rep. Lizzie Fletcher of Texas would require the NTIA to establish a grant program to assist local governments and Indian tribes with the efficient review of zoning or permitting applications for broadband infrastructure.
The Senate has also been busy. I wrote recently about a bipartisan bill from Sen. John Thune (R-S.D.) and Jacky Rosen (D-Nev.), the Accurate Map for Broadband Investment Act that would require the FCC to fix its broadband maps before dispersing the majority of the BEAD funding to states.
Four senators recently introduced the bipartisan Rural Internet Improvement Act that would streamline the grant funding process for the USDA’s ReConnect grants.
There is also legislative activity in some states. The bill that might get the most attention comes from the Washington legislature, which has included language in the annual House budget bill that would require any ISP that accepts BEAD grant funding to provide open-access. That means ISPs taking grant funding would have to sell wholesale connections to any other ISP on grant-funded networks. Washington has a long history of open-access, and for years it was the only allowable business model for the many countywide municipal electric companies. This law is facing obvious major opposition from cable companies and big telcos which have always resisted all laws that would require them to share their networks. One, article I read said that cable companies are threatening to stop making infrastructure investments in cities if this law passes.
It’s hard to know what this flurry of legislative activity means. It’s likely that most of the proposed bills won’t make it through the process to become laws. But some likely will. It’s hard not to think that some of this legislation will change the BEAD grant rules between now and the time that ISPs file for and receive BEAD grants. I guess we have to add legislative uncertainty to the list of issues that are complicating the BEAD grant process.