Through NLC’s Rebuild With Us campaign, local leaders are asking Congress to pass a comprehensive infrastructure package that steps up federal support for transportation, water, broadband, workforce, and more. On July 1, the U.S. House of Representatives passed the Moving Forward Act (H.R.2), which makes significant investments to support cities’ infrastructure requests, but Senate action will be needed. This is the fifth in a series examining infrastructure components of the Moving Forward Act focused on broadband priorities.
The ongoing coronavirus pandemic emergency has highlighted the essential role connectivity plays in our lives. Office workers have become telecommuters, doctors’ visits have become video chats, and school, church services, and live entertainment have all moved to livestream. However, too many children and families have suffered unnecessarily during this time, because either broadband service is not available in their neighborhoods, or they were unable to afford a home broadband subscription.
In the city of San Leandro, the majority of our students are eligible for free and reduced-price lunch, making these families exceptionally vulnerable during the pandemic. While students in our school system were able to check out laptops and tablets to stay connected while at home, these devices are not useful without an internet connection. The city has made substantial investments in recent years through a public-private partnership, Lit San Leandro, to comprehensively plan and expand broadband infrastructure throughout the community. This investment meant that we have been able to provide residents with a map of all outdoor public wi-fi access points when traditional facilities like libraries and schools were closed, and partner with local internet service providers on free or discounted in-home service. Recently, San Leandro was able to partner with a local non-profit organization to distribute $12,000 worth of laptops and devices, free-of-charge, to support 95 local residents who were impacted by the pandemic.
However, these services cannot meet the needs of all our residents and do not replace comprehensive, long-term federal investment in and regulation of broadband service. In recognition of the critical place broadband now holds in our lives, the House of Representatives’ recently-passed Moving Forward Act (H.R. 2) includes a package of unprecedented investments in broadband infrastructure and changes to federal broadband subsidies and programs.
Here are some key ways the Moving Forward Act would improve connectivity in communities:
$80 Billion in New Investments to Build or Upgrade Broadband Infrastructure
The Moving Forward Act would authorize $80 billion to build or upgrade broadband infrastructure, both in areas without any broadband and in areas with insufficient, asymmetrical, or high-latency service. These performance upgrades would not only help to adapt such infrastructure in anticipation of high-bandwidth needs in the future, but also support current needs such as telemedicine and real-time videoconferencing. The bill would also create a Broadband Infrastructure Financing Innovation Program (BIFIA), similar to the WIFIA program for water infrastructure, to provide financing for broadband projects.
Permitting Local Broadband Investment
The bill incorporates the Community Broadband Act, which overturns state preemptions of municipal broadband that currently prevent public, public-private, or cooperative networks from being built or operating in nearly half of the states. It also provides a tax credit for public or public-private broadband provision through 2028.
Prioritization of Rural Connectivity
The bill tackles rural broadband specifically through a new $250 million grant program for rural development that incorporates broadband infrastructure and provisions to streamline broadband and telecommunications infrastructure on public lands. H.R. 2 also includes a “dig once” provision, which would help smooth the path to including broadband infrastructure coordination in federally supported transportation projects, while also providing a pathway to more cost-efficient middle-mile broadband infrastructure that is needed for access to rural communities. The House approved an amendment that would require the federal government to study broadband access in small communities with populations below 50,000.
Support for Broadband Affordability and Digital Equity
Many households are unable to access broadband, not because of a lack of infrastructure, but simply due to an inability to afford monthly bills. The Moving Forward Act takes unprecedented steps to address broadband affordability and adoption rates through a $625 million digital equity grant program, which would support state and local efforts to bridge the digital divide. The bill also expands and reforms Universal Service Fund programs such as E-Rate and Lifeline, which provide access through broadband funding for anchor institutions and subsidies for low-income consumers. H.R. 2 would create an $8.8 billion fund to subsidize low-income household broadband, separate from the existing Lifeline program. In addition, an amendment to the bill would require a federal study and plan for investment in broadband in federally assisted housing buildings and units.
Broadband Consumer Protection
The Moving Forward Act includes a number of consumer protection provisions, including a new requirement for broadband speed and pricing reporting from internet service providers, often called a “broadband nutrition label.” An amendment added to the bill also requires a federal study on the impact of monopoly on broadband service, and an accountability study on the speeds of federally subsidized broadband services. The bill would also block an FCC action overturning municipal ordinances that require internet service providers to allow competition within multi-tenant residential buildings.
Federal Coordination of Broadband Funding
The bill would establish an Office of Internet Connectivity and Growth within the National Telecommunications and Information Administration – effectively a formalization and expansion of the existing BroadbandUSA program – to coordinate all federal broadband funding and activity and provide education and technical assistance outreach to state and local broadband planners.
Investment in Public Safety
The Moving Forward Act authorizes $12 billion for the rollout of Next Generation 9-1-1 technology in communities. NG 9-1-1 would allow callers to communicate with 9-1-1 dispatch centers using photo, video, and other forms of information, and would also help 9-1-1 centers better transfer calls and data to other centers, and respond more easily during system outages or when overwhelmed during disasters.
Senate Action Still a Long Shot
While the bill incorporates many of NLC’s broadband priorities, the Senate must still act on infrastructure legislation for it to become law. Currently, the Senate Commerce Committee, which leads Senate broadband policy, has proposed a much less comprehensive set of policies that would potentially incorporate preemption of local permitting authority.
As local governments continue to feel the fiscal impacts from the coronavirus public health crisis, NLC asks you to reach out to your Senators to brief them on the economic conditions in your city and the need for additional infrastructure support. Here is an easy guide to get you started. If you need additional information regarding who to contact, email NLC’s Federal Advocacy team at firstname.lastname@example.org. Now is the time for Congress and the administration to move forward on infrastructure.
About the Authors:
Corina Lopez serves on the San Leandro, California City Council and is Chair of the National League of Cities Information Technology and Communications Federal Advocacy Committee.
Angelina Panettieri is the Legislative Manager for Information Technology and Communications at the National League of Cities. Follow her on twitter at @AngelinainDC.