Federal agencies begin to sing the same broadband policy music, according to NTIA report

by Steve Blum • , , , ,

Mormon tabernacle choir

There’s more coherency and cooperation amongst federal broadband development planning and programs, according to a report just released by the National Telecommunications and Information Administration. Once you get past the love letter penned to president Donald Trump by a couple of his cabinet secretaries, it’s a good overview of how at least some parts of the federal bureaucracy are trying to coordinate broadband policy.

The need for better execution is clear. The report notes the gap between urban and rural broadband availability – 2% of urban residents lack access to fixed service at a minimum speed of 25 Mbps down and 3 Mbps up. The divide is even wider when, um, overly optimistic fixed wireless availability claims are factored out.

Most of the agency initiatives mentioned in the report already exist, and focus on streamlining processes for things like getting permits to build fiber routes through federal lands or renting space on federally owned towers. That’s all useful, and it’s good to know that, little by little, federal agencies are making it easier to get some work done.

But money talks. No new broadband funding was announced, but the report does highlight the federal agriculture department’s new ReConnect program, which will direct $600 million into rural projects. It also offers clues to other sources of broadband money in the federal bureaucracy…

Other Agencies have also made broadband an allowable expense within their current funding streams. Funding for broadband infrastructure may be supported by block and formula grants provided through programs managed by HUD and the DOE. The Economic Development Administration (EDA), Appalachian Regional Commission (ARC), and DRA have identified broadband as an eligible expense and a priority for economic development. These funding streams are critical. They can catalyze private investment and ensure that services are sustained and upgraded over time.

The report also recommends closer cooperation between the agriculture department and the Federal Communications Commission, suggesting that the USDA’s infrastructure construction grants and the FCC’s Connect America Fund (CAF) operating subsidies could complement each other.

Perhaps, but it would require a major change in the way the FCC decides who gets CAF money. Right now, incumbent telephone companies get first dibs on nearly all the money, and what’s left over is auctioned off. USDA, on the other hand, opens up infrastructure grant application windows at irregular intervals. Redesigning the programs would almost certainly require congressional approval.

One agency is conspicuously absent from the action items. Although the report mentions the federal transportation department, it doesn’t sketch out a role for it, and there’s no mention of dig once requirements for federal highway projects.