On June 15, 2021, Senators Michael Bennet (D-Colo.), Rob Portman (R-Ohio), and Angus King (I-Maine) introduced S.2071, the “Broadband Reform and Investment to Drive Growth in the Economy Act of 2021” – or “BRIDGE Act." Hailed as a bipartisan – tripartisan? – effort, the 50-page bill would create a $40 Billion “Broadband Access Fund” distributed by the Department of Commerce (the Assistant Secretary for Communications and Information) to “eligible entities” consisting of the 50 States, DC, Puerto Rico, Tribal governments, and U.S. island Territories for the deployment and adoption of broadband service. Using buzzwords like “digital equity” and “digital inclusion,” the BRIDGE Act is both ambitious and provocative.
The legislation’s aim is to deliver broadband at speeds of at least 25 Mbps downstream/3 Mbps upstream to areas having a large low-income population. To that end, the bill’s first priority is to fund “deployment of broadband infrastructure” to areas that do not have 25/3 Mbps broadband, and then to fund deployment to areas that do not have broadband at the 100/25 Mbps level. But the bill’s true aspiration is to ensure “gigabit-level” service of 1/1 Gbps, instructing eligible entities to give priority to grantees that promise speeds of 1 Gbps downstream and upstream within three years of funding. One wonders whether that goal is appropriate, let alone attainable.
Of note is the fact that eligible entities may award grants to a broad range of recipients, including “public-private partnerships” and local governments, thus inviting government-owned broadband networks paid for with federal tax dollars. The bill contains a section devoted to preempting state and local prohibitions on government-provided broadband.
Also of note are the disparate minimum-funding levels specified in the bill: $100 Million to each State, $75 Million to DC and to Puerto, and $100 Million to be split among the U.S. Island Territories, but “not less than 5 percent” of the Fund ($2 Billion) must go to Tribal governments. Money can be spent on any number of broadband and broadband-adjacent items, including broadband mapping and planning, telehealth, distance learning, and “digital inclusion,” which is defined to include both affordability and literacy.
The bill sets forth in close detail the timing and criteria for awarding Broadband Access Fund grants. Disbursements would be contingent upon the entity’s online submission of an acceptable proposal using a model that Commerce must create within 120 days of the bill’s enactment. Proposals must describe existing efforts to “close the digital divide” as well as set forth deployment plans and explain how the entity intends to coordinate with local and regional “broadband planning processes.” Several more reports would be required from both the States and the grantees during the funding and implementation processes, which may evidence some frustration in Congress with the level of transparency and accountability displayed by existing federal broadband programs like Universal Service and the Rural Utilities Service. Service providers would even have to report their non-promotional broadband prices, which might be a harbinger of unprecedented federal rate regulation.
The bill emphasizes the need for inter-agency coordination. Commerce would be required to sign a Memorandum of Understanding with the Federal Communications Commission and Department of Agriculture and to share with those agencies the reported results of how the Broadband Access Fund was spent. The bill also would put the FCC to work, requiring a new proceeding within 30 days of enactment “to evaluate the implications of this Act on how the Commission should achieve the universal service goals for broadband” and a report within 270 days “on the options of the [FCC] for … achieving the universal service goals for broadband in light of this Act.”
The BRIDGE Act demands a lot of transmission speed and a lot of answers. According to Sen. Bennet, it “turns the page on Washington’s failed approach to closing the digital divide.” Though FCC Chair Rosenworcel has redoubled efforts since her elevation to close the “Homework Gap”, evidently these Senators feel that her efforts are too little, too late.