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November 10, 2021
At a White House press briefing this afternoon, US Commerce Secretary Gina Raimondo took to the podium to share details of the now-passed $65 billion broadband bill and the significant role her department will play in its fulfillment.
"I will confess this is going to be a massive undertaking for the Department of Commerce. But we're up for it," she said. "We've been planning for months and we're up for it."
The US Department of Commerce, as the agency which houses the NTIA (National Telecommunications and Information Administration), will receive and administer the lion's share (roughly $48 billion), primarily through grants to states.
"We're gonna give out a grant per state, and each state will then give grants to sub-grantees on the ground," she said.
Noting that there would be "a tremendous amount of federal oversight," Raimondo said that states are required to present a plan "that guarantees every single person in your state has access to high-speed affordable Internet." Once plans are approved, states are required to "put their plan online for everyone to see," she said.
Figure 1: "Implementing this in partnership with our partners on the ground, we will be able to close the digital divide," said Secretary Raimondo. "30, 40, 50 years from now, we will look back on this as the turning point."
(Source: White House via Flickr)
Beyond grants of $100 million to each state, the remaining funds will be distributed to states by the Department of Commerce based on the number of underserved households, said Raimondo.
"The whole name of the game here is to focus on the underserved and the unserved, and on affordability," she said. "We have to make sure that we don't spend this money overbuilding, which means we'll have to work very closely with the FCC using their maps to make sure that we focus the money where broadband doesn't exist now."
A couple of bumps on that road remain. The FCC has not made much public progress on overhauling the country's broadband map, which significantly undercounts the number of Americans cut off by the digital divide. And crucial nominees for that agency, as well as the NTIA, await Senate confirmation.
That's just part of the reason people shouldn't expect the digital divide to close – or even to see a subsidized shovel in the ground attached to this specific bill – all too soon.
"I think it will take us some number of months to start getting the money out the door," said Raimondo, adding that it will likely be "well into next year" before these broadband projects get underway.
In the meantime, she added, the Department of Commerce is currently distributing funds for broadband through the tribal and rural initiatives established through COVID-19 relief funds. Further, some aspects of the new broadband bill can be implemented sooner, like providing subsidies.
The hard infrastructure part, like "laying fiber across America" will take longer, said Secretary Raimondo, "but we'll be creating jobs every step of the way."
As the federal government prepares to distribute funding, many states are already well positioned to advocate for their broadband needs. Most states in the US have a broadband office, fund, agency and/or task force, according to Pew. Some states, like Pennsylvania and Georgia, have also created their own broadband maps.
In addition to Biden's picks for the FCC and NTIA needing confirmation by the end of the year, one other critical step remains before the $65 broadband bill and larger infrastructure package can be set in motion: The president still needs to sign it. He is expected to do so next week when Congress is back in session.
A version of this story first appeared on Broadband World News.
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