How could the federal Infrastructure bill impact broadband in MN?

KARE11 News reports

The Senate’s infrastructure bill would bring billions of dollars in improvements to Minnesota.

The $1 trillion infrastructure package received bipartisan support in the Senate, passing 69 to 30 with 19 Republicans joining Democrats. The bill, which still needs to pass the House, includes $550 billion in new spending.

U.S. Senators Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.) and Tina Smith (D-Minn.) both voted in favor of the bill.

For broadband in Minnesota…

The plan would bring at least $100 million for broadband internet systems in communities across the state and provide access to at least 83,000 residents currently without broadband access.

“We found out in really glaring technicolor during the pandemic that we have 144,000 households in our state that don’t have high speed broadband. The school superintendents would say in all of the rural areas something like 10% to 15% of their kids couldn’t even do their homework over the internet because they had such slow internet,” said Sen. Klobuchar, during a press conference Wednesday afternoon at Nicollet Island Pavilion in Minneapolis.

La Crosse Tribune goes into the broadband aspects…

More radical industry changes laid out in the Biden administration’s original $100 billion plan, like promoting alternatives to the dominant phone and cable industries and hinting at price regulation, didn’t survive bipartisan negotiations over a bill that had to attract Republican support. Among the bill’s big winners, in fact, are those same internet service providers.

There’s a focus on affordability…

The Senate bill would provide about $14 billion toward a $30 monthly benefit that helps low-income people pay for internet, extending a pandemic-era emergency program.

“What makes this historic is the focus on affordability,” said Jenna Leventoff of Public Knowledge, which advocates for more funding for broadband. The bill, should it become law, is “going to help a lot of people that were otherwise unable to connect.”

An existing program, known as Lifeline, aimed to help solve this affordability issue before. But it only provides $9.25 a month, which doesn’t go far for internet plans. It has also been a target of Republicans, who say it has fraud and abuse problems.

Industry groups have also advocated for a permanent broadband benefit. Broadband companies, if they choose to participate, will gain additional customers. The program is “a plus for all ISPs,” said Evercore ISI analyst Vijay Jayant.

And network deployment…

The bill provides about $42 billion in grants to states, who in turn will funnel it to ISPs to expand networks where people don’t have good internet service. Companies that take this money will have to offer a low-cost service option. Government regulators will approve the price of that service.

The bill requires that internet projects come with minimum speeds of 100 mbps down/20 up, a big step up from current requirements. But some advocates are concerned that it’s still too slow, and argue that the federal government may have to spend big again down the line to rebuild networks that aren’t up to par for future needs.

Cable companies are also happy that the funding is primarily dedicated to areas that don’t currently have broadband service. Some advocates had hoped the government would step in and fund competition to cable so that people had more choices. Others saw that as wasteful.

The Biden administration’s initial plan promised to promote local government networks, cooperatives and nonprofits as alternatives to for-profit phone and cable companies. Under the Senate’s plan now, such groups aren’t prioritized, but they can still get money from states for networks. The telecom industry has lobbied against municipal networks; about 20 states restrict them.

Senate negotiators also left loopholes in language around an attempt to end what’s known as “digital redlining” — when telecom companies provide upgraded internet service in wealthier parts of town but leave others without good service. The bill says the FCC must create rules to stop this practice, “insofar as technically and economically feasible.” But the whole reason telecoms leave some areas with subpar service is because those neighborhoods are not as profitable, said Leventoff.

This entry was posted in FCC, Funding, MN, Policy and tagged by Ann Treacy. Bookmark the permalink.

About Ann Treacy

Librarian who follows rural broadband in MN and good uses of new technology (blandinonbroadband.org), hosts a radio show on MN music (mostlyminnesota.com), supports people experiencing homelessness in Minnesota (elimstrongtowershelters.org) and helps with social justice issues through Women’s March MN.

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