Lots to Love, Something to Watch, in Accessible, Affordable Internet for All Act

Update 7/7/20:

The U.S. House of Representatives passed the Moving Forward Act, which includes the Accessible, Affordable Internet for All Act, on Wednesday, July 1. The bill is currently in the Senate, where Majority Leader Mitch McConnell has announced his opposition to the legislation, calling it "pointless political theater," and saying, "this nonsense is not going anywhere in the Senate."

Original article:

Earlier this week, Democrats in the U.S. House of Representatives introduced the Accessible, Affordable Internet for All Act, a sweeping bill that would take major steps toward closing the digital divide.

We reported on the legislation yesterday, but today we want to take a closer look at the bill text [pdf]. Below, we examine some details of how the act would fund broadband deployment and affordable connections for Americans across the country.

Grand Plans to Build Broadband, Connect the Unconnected

Among the investments proposed in the Accessible, Affordable Internet for All Act, the largest is $80 billion to fund the construction of broadband networks in unserved and underserved areas. That amount dwarfs the Federal Communications Commission’s (FCC’s) upcoming $20.4 billion Rural Digital Opportunity Fund (RDOF).

Like RDOF, the legislation calls for a competitive bidding process to distribute the funds. In 2018, the FCC used a bidding process in the Connect America Fund phase II reverse auction. Compared to earlier subsidies granted under that program, which largely went to large monopolies to deploy slow, outdated DSL networks, many more winning auction bidders were rural cooperatives or other local networks that planned to deploy gigabit fiber. The proposed funding program would prioritize deployment projects that connect tribal communities and persistent-poverty areas, offer higher speeds, and/or build open access networks (a model successfully employed by Ammon, Idaho; Utah’s UTOPIA; and a number of Washington Public Utility Districts). Funded networks must offer broadband speeds of 100 Megabits per second (Mbps) download and 100 Mbps upload as well as an affordable subscription tier.

Furthermore, the Accessible, Affordable Internet for All Act sets forward-looking definitions of “unserved” and “underserved” to ensure the smart investment of taxpayer dollars. In the bill, areas without access to Internet speeds of 25 Mbps download and 25 Mbps upload are considered “unserved,” while areas without 100/100 Mbps are considered to have “low-tier service” — both would be eligible for funding. (Currently, most federal funds are directed to areas without basic broadband service of 25/3 Mbps.) By making the speed definitions symmetrical, the bill acknowledges the importance of high upload capacity for online businesses, telehealth patients, and other users.

Twenty five percent of the $80 billion in broadband funding would go to states to distribute to connect “unserved” and “low-tier service” areas as well as unserved anchor institutions and areas with “mid-tier service,” defined as areas without gigabit broadband access.

Unlike the majority of current federal broadband programs, the Accessible, Affordable Internet for All Act also includes provisions to expand affordable Internet access and support digital inclusion efforts in areas that already have broadband infrastructure available. These measures include $9 billion to fund $50-$75 broadband subsidies for low-income households, support for state digital equity plans and local digital inclusion projects (as proposed previously in the Digital Equity Act), and a requirement for the FCC to collect subscription price data from broadband providers.

These efforts are essential to closing the digital divide because the majority of Americans without home Internet access actually live in urban areas, not rural communities, and high cost is a major reason why people don’t subscribe to broadband. A recent white paper from the National Digital Inclusion Alliance explains how government programs that invest solely in rural, unserved areas both fail to solve the digital divide and are a form of structural racism.

Additionally, the legislation would end the pro-monopoly, anti-local authority restrictions that 19 states currently have on municipal broadband networks and that we have long worked to raise awareness of.

FCC Has Final Say on Some Implementation

While much of the Accessible, Affordable Internet for All Act reads as a broadband advocate’s wish list, there are certain aspects of the legislation that the jury is still out on.

One part that some people have voiced concerns about is the requirement for states to distribute their portions of the $80 billion in broadband deployment funds through “systems of competitive bidding.” Some worry that this could be interpreted to mean that states must conduct reverse auctions, which many state governments could find difficult and costly to implement. Bill sponsors have said that they believe existing state grant programs, like the Minnesota Border-to-Border Broadband Grant, would qualify, and the legislation does call for federal support for the development of state programs. However, the bill ultimately charges the FCC with determining what would qualify as a “system of competitive bidding,” and if passed, would be reliant on the agency’s interpretation of the legislation.

Similarly, the FCC would be responsible for establishing the definition of an affordable service for recipients of the broadband deployment funds.

To be clear, these features aren’t necessarily problems but rather things to keep an eye on if Congress passes the bill.

Overall, the Accessible, Affordable Internet for All Act contains many provisions that advocates have long argued for, and it holds a lot of promise for unconnected communities in America’s countryside, it’s cities, and everywhere in between. See yesterday’s article for how to show your support.

This article only scratches the surface of the many measures included in the Accessible, Affordable Internet for All Act. For additional details, view the bill text [pdf] or the section-by-section summary [pdf].