Broadband may finally have its day in the US Congress, with the Senate set for a potential vote to move forward with its bipartisan infrastructure package on Wednesday.
Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-NY) said he intends to call a cloture vote in the Senate on Wednesday on the motion to proceed to a shell bill legislation. In other words, he intends to begin the process of using the bipartisan framework to debate and write the law.
While that vote seems likely to fail, with some Republican senators saying they're not done negotiating, legislators appear broadly optimistic that the package will eventually move forward.
So does the broadband industry, thus sparking some last-minute appeals from various groups seeking to influence specifics of the legislation around speed mandates, and thus, the future of America's broadband technology infrastructure at large.
Last week, six national organizations – including the Electronic Frontier Foundation, Fiber Broadband Association, Public Knowledge, National Rural Electric Cooperative Association NTCA —The Rural Broadband Association and INCOMPAS – released a statement urging Congress to mandate "future-proofed" networks by requiring a minimum speed of 100/100 Mbit/s for those projects eligible to receive funding.
"These future-proofed networks will support public safety, small business growth, education and telemedicine needs while enabling precision agriculture, powering 5G technology, and allowing for real-time, two-way communications by many users at the same location," they said.
"Other nations, including China, the EU and the UK, have all set goals of deploying gigabit broadband by 2025, and the U.S. cannot afford to fall behind on deploying networks that are fast enough to support the education needs of today and the jobs of the future."
However, a separate letter organized by the Wireless Internet Service Providers Association (WISPA) on behalf of 400+ fixed wireless industry member organizations, expresses "deep concern" about a possible 100/100 Mbit/s mandate.
"We applaud Congress's focus on developing workable proposals for broadband infrastructure deployment. However, we are deeply concerned by proposals before Congress that openly call for fiber-only deployments by requiring 100/100 symmetrical speeds," states WISPA.
"As professionals who have dedicated our lives and work to the communities and businesses we serve, we are concerned that this will delay broadband deployment and upgrades to unserved and underserved communities, as well as destroy the very competition this effort seeks to create."
The letter further calls for "ensuring technology diversity and support for the smallest businesses to upgrade and grow."
In this episode of The Divide, WISPA's Claude Aiken argues that US broadband policy should be tech neutral.
As of mid-last week, network speed requirements were among the details still being sorted out by Congress, according to comments shared by Fiber Broadband Association CEO Gary Bolton during a webinar. On Friday, however, Politico reported that senators were now considering 100/20 Mbit/s, a more pleasing standard for proponents of tech neutrality.
The bipartisan group of senators is also reportedly working off legislation, including the BRIDGE Act and the American Broadband Buildout Act, which would prioritize state control over funding distribution, a point of advocacy for local leaders and broadband researchers.
"What we're seeing is the administration taking a step forward and saying, you know, we need to have more community engagement in bridging the digital divide," said Kathryn DeWit, project director of Pew's broadband access initiative, in an interview with Broadband World News. "By having that greater level of community involvement, what we have seen in our research is that yields more universal connectivity throughout a service area because you actually have community members coming to the table and saying, 'this is what I want, this is where we don't have connections,' and then working with service providers in order to find the solution that meets needs on both ends."
While Congress works out the remaining details – and moves on to the next stage in a still-long legislative process – DeWit says it's a good time for states to invest in pre-deployment activities, such as data collection, completing broadband planning processes and building internal capacity to manage an influx of funding.
"The challenge is, of course, we know that this is an urgent need. But looking at lessons learned from prior programs, hustling to get money out the door for the sake of getting money out the door may not be the best solution," she said. "Investing in those pre-planning activities and those capacity-building activities will help build the expertise needed at the local level and with community partners, and help build better public-private partnerships, and also give time for states to build the administrative, operational and informational structure they need to develop to prioritize funding strategies."
— Nicole Ferraro, contributing editor and host of "The Divide" and "What's the Story?" Light Reading