Broadband Bills in the States: The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly | Citizens Against Government Waste

Broadband Bills in the States: The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly

The WasteWatcher

Between the COVID-19 relief bills and the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act (IIJA), states have received, or are on pace to receive tens of billions of dollars for broadband expansion.  Indeed, according to Federal Communications Commission (FCC) Commissioner Brendan Carr, up to $800 billion is available across the country to build out broadband infrastructure.  State officials should ensure that this unprecedented amount of money be spent first and foremost to connect truly unserved and underserved communities and avoid waste and duplication in that process. 

The federal funding comes with inconsistent requirements, including different speed thresholds and vendor and technology preferences.  The Rural Utilities Service Rural eConnectivity Program (ReConnect) program includes a preference for governmental or quasi-governmental entities and entities who agree to unrelated policy requirements like net neutrality.  The Department of Treasury guidance for the $350 billion included for infrastructure in American Rescue Plan Act sets preferences for a single technology (fiber) and a specific vendor (government-owned or nonprofit broadband networks).  The IIJA, which does not include a preference for a particular vendor or technology, provides $42.45 billion for the National Telecommunications and Information Administration.  The agency’s regulations are scheduled to be issued in May 2022.  A state could end up with three difference rules for three separate pots of money.  On top of the funding requirements, the money should be spent based on accurate maps that show areas of the states that are truly unserved and underserved. 

The differing state approaches are exemplified by SB 3683 in Illinois and LD 1894 in Maine.

SB 3683 does not favor a particular technology or provider.  It includes guardrails that prevent government-owned networks (GONs), which have proven to be costly and ineffective, and academic institutions from receiving broadband funding.  All funds allocated under SB 3683 must be spent in locations that do not yet have broadband access, in other words, truly unserved communities.  The legislation should help to ensure that broadband funding will go those who need it most in a more effective manner than most state broadband funding bills.

At the other end of the spectrum is LD 1894, which prioritizes GONs over public/private partnerships.  If passed, the state’s Internet Access Expansion Fund would have to “give priority to projects that assist state or local ownership of broadband infrastructure.”  As a result, the bill limits the potential for any other option to expand broadband access to all residents of Pine Tree State using the most effective technology available for the area lacking service.

Other states that have bills that would undermine efforts to expand broadband access to unserved and underserved communities by investing only in select technologies or vendors include HB 4178 in Massachusetts and SB 2474 in Mississippi, which fortunately failed in committee.  SB 2474 would have incentivized the creation of new GONs by allowing utilities to “possess the same powers as a corporation” and authorization “to enter into interlocal agreements with any adjacent utility.”  The focus on one technology or vendor does little to help residents seeking to gain broadband access.  Instead, these provisions promise to do more harm than good as they reduce options for consumers and pour taxpayer dollars into unsustainable and untenable broadband projects.

The key to effective broadband deployment lies in ensuring that taxpayer dollars go to where they are most needed.  They should not be used to overbuild existing networks or designated for a specific vendor or technology.  The states should be aware of the purpose and pitfalls of spending a massive amount of money to increase broadband access and ensure that it is spent effectively and efficiently.

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