When President Biden proposed up to $100 billion to expand broadband availability in the US as part of his $2 trillion infrastructure plan, some critics argued that broadband shouldn't be included in infrastructure spending, and that the figure was far too high anyway.
A group of top Senate Republicans released their own proposal Thursday, addressing both of those concerns. Their proposal does include funding for broadband, to the tune of $65 billion.
While that's obviously less than what Biden has proposed, it's still an astronomical amount when compared with previous federal broadband funding initiatives. For example, the first phase of the FCC's recent Rural Digital Opportunity Fund (RDOF) auction totaled just $9.2 billion, while its Connect America Fund Phase II (CAF II) auction before that totaled only $1.5 billion. Both programs are designed to help finance the construction of telecom networks in rural areas. Meantime, the FCC is also putting the finishing touches on its $3.2 billion Emergency Broadband Benefit (EPB) program; that effort is designed to help poor Americans pay for Internet connections.
Thus, it's likely that telecom operators and vendors in general are cheering the new proposal from the GOP because their $65 billion would be in addition to RDOF, CAF II and EPB money.
"WISPA commends Shelley Moore Capito (R-WV), Roger Wicker (R-MS), John Barrasso (R-WY) and Pat Toomey (R-PA) for a new Republican proposal to update America's infrastructure," wrote the Wireless Internet Service Provider Association, a trade group representing fixed wireless providers, in a statement Thursday. "Though details are pending, that proposal includes $65 billion of additional spending to boost the rollout of broadband throughout America."
The two-page GOP proposal – which would allocate a total of $568 billion for infrastructure spending – does not include any details, including how the spending might be funded and how the broadband portion might be allocated.
"I think that we see this as an offer that is on the table and deserves a response," Capito explained, according to CNBC. "And I think it will get a response."
It's unclear what might happen next. Democrats and Republicans might negotiate a compromise somewhere between their two proposals, or Democrats might try to move their proposal forward on their own. There are also indications that some Democrats would support legislation funding transportation and broadband specifically, leaving the rest for passage at a later date.
"The infrastructure bill, euphemistically speaking, is a little bit of a large, amorphous thing right now," AT&T CEO John Stankey said Thursday during the company's quarterly earnings call, when questioned about the legislation. "My opinion is that that it will go through some changes."
"This is in the planning stages so it's hard to say if this will go through or not," Hans Vestberg, Verizon's CEO, said during his company's quarterly conference call this week. "On the other hand, I think that what we are telling the administration ... is that accessibility, affordably and usability are the three buckets to address the digital divide."
— Mike Dano, Editorial Director, 5G & Mobile Strategies, Light Reading | @mikeddano