Recap: Oversight of the National Telecommunications and Information Administration

The Senate's Subcommittee on Communications, Media, and Broadband convened an oversight hearing on the Department of Commerce's National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA) and its implementation of the broadband programs in the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act. NTIA Administrator Alan Davidson was the sole witness. The Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act provides $65 billion in funding to connect all Americans to affordable, reliable high-speed internet. NTIA was allocated more than $48 billion of this funding to work with states and other stakeholders to lay the critical groundwork to connect every American. In May, NTIA releases three Notices of Funding Opportunity (NOFO) setting the guidelines for three broadband programs:

  1. Broadband Equity, Access, and Deployment (BEAD) Program: Builds high-speed internet infrastructure where needed, supports job training, provides the equipment needed, and drives partnerships to get everyone online.
  2. Digital Equity Act Programs: Three programs that promote digital inclusion and advance equity for all to ensure all communities have affordable access and can use the internet to improve their lives.
  3. Enabling Middle Mile Broadband Infrastructure Program: This program expands middle mile infrastructure. It aims to reduce the cost of connecting unserved and underserved areas.

Administrator Davidson testified that in drafting the NOFO, NTIA faithfully implemented the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act. NTIA reviewed and incorporated feedback from the broad array of stakeholders who commented in response to a Request for Comment, as well as input from Members of Congress, governors, mayors, and other elected officials throughout the country. "I am even more pleased to report that," said Davidson, "as of this week, 36 states and territories across the country have submitted letters of intent to participate in the Broadband, Equity Access, and Deployment program."

“Our top priority is closing the digital divide. We have been talking about the digital divide in this country for 20 years. Now, Congress, through the bipartisan infrastructure law, has finally given us the tools to structurally address this problem.”—Alan Davison

The hearing was chaired by Senator Ben Ray Luján (D-NM). In his opening remarks, Subcommittee Chairman Luján urged Administrator Davidson to consider three points:

  1. NTIA must stay focused on closing the digital divide for all Americans. Broadband access relies on both availability and adoption. For some communities, affordability has been – and will remain – the most pressing obstacle for ensuring adoption. For others, ensuring availability through high-quality future-proof fiber is the solution. And for others, deployment of wireless technology capable across challenging terrain must be prioritized. No single solution is going to work for all Americans, and I am glad that Administrator Davidson recognizes that.
  2. NTIA must work closely with the FCC, USDA, OMB, and other agencies to accomplish its mission. BEAD is the newest, but there are 133 federal programs administered across 15 agencies that support broadband access.
  3. NTIA must ensure investments in connectivity are made efficiently and in the best interests of the communities they serve. NTIA’s mission is to support secure, private, free, and open communications is critical for protecting consumers. Industry has made significant private investment to close the digital divide. Despite the federal government’s many programs to provide broadband access, we continue to fall short. Digital equity is essential. We must do more in rural areas, Tribal nations, and in urban areas with a history of digital redlining. In a report released just last week, GAO recommended NTIA identify key statutory provisions that limit the reach of broadband programs. NTIA should offer legislative proposals to address those limitations.

Commerce Committee Ranking Member Roger Wicker (R-MS) raised concerns about provisions in the NOFO that he believes could undermine the program’s success:

First, NTIA is unclear on whether it will wait for the [Federal Communications Commission] to resolve challenges to its maps before allocating funds to states. This could cause some states to get more money than they need at the expense of others. Next, NTIA fails to take a technology-neutral approach to deployment, which could increase costs in some areas. NTIA also prioritizes government-run broadband networks, as well as other “non-traditional” providers that lack a record of successful deployments. Further, NTIA requires states to develop middle class affordability plans, which the agency does not define and could lead to rate regulation by states. Finally, NTIA adopts a number of other unnecessary requirements, particularly on labor and climate, which will increase the burdens on states and providers.

Fierce reports that Sens. Wicker, John Thune (R-SD), and Deb Fischer (R-NE) argued that requirements like  to offer affordable service plan options, show proof their workforce is sufficiently skilled if they are using non-union labor and prioritize projects which use fiber technology wherever feasible will unnecessarily burden the states and service providers receiving the money. “With each of these added objectives you’re making margins thinner and you’re increasing costs which means less money for deployment,” Fischer stated. They claimed such regulations went against the intent of Congress when it passed the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act, through which the broadband funding was allocated.

Davidson, however, contended that’s not the case at all. Asked whether the pricing rule amounted to de facto rate regulation, for instance, he argued the NTIA’s guidelines allow for plenty of flexibility in how states ensure the affordable tier requirement is met.

“The heart of this is we believe affordability is a critical component of what we’re trying to achieve here. The statute tells us that it is and we know that affordability is not a luxury, it is a necessity. If we build access and people cannot, families cannot afford to get online we will not have met our goal,” he said. “We expect different states are going to approach this different ways. Nowhere in here do we set a price for broadband.”

While committee members of both parties were eager to see the broadband money flow into their states, StateScoop reported that many also expressed concerns about the progress that the FCC has made in drafting new maps that more accurately reflect the availability of high-speed internet across the U.S. Those maps—which are to be based on granular Census data rather than information self-reported by internet carriers—will help determine how much funding new broadband projects will get from the BEAD program.

FCC Chair Jessica Rosenworcel has said she expects a first draft of the new broadband maps to be ready by fall.

“I’m worried. What bothers me is we don’t have the maps, and the thing you are using to make decisions are not necessarily accurate,” said Sen. Jerry Moran (R-KS). “The end result cannot be one more time we’ve failed to make broadband available across the country.”

“The maps are essential,” Davidson said. “They are the biggest thing slowing us down. We have to get the maps right.”

Senators from large western states, like Sen. Jacky Rosen (D-NV), said they are also concerned with how the NTIA will plan for broadband grants that could run up against land controlled by federal agencies, including the Bureau of Land Management and the Defense Department. Davidson said his agency is working on a memorandum of understanding with the Interior Department.

Finally, Davidson said that NTIA is engaging with state and local governments, and with communities that may benefit from the broadband money as it’s distributed over the next half-decade.

“We view this as an all-of-government, all-hands-on-deck opportunity,” he said in response to a question from Sen. Tammy Baldwin (D-WI). “Engaging the public is essential. The NOFOs do require publicizing it, that people in the service area know what’s being provided.”

Recap: Oversight of the National Telecommunications and Information Administration Hearing page Opening Statement of Chairman Ben Ray Luján Opening Statement of Ranking Member Roger F. Wicker Testimony of Assistant Secretary for Communications and Information Alan Davidson Wait on FCC maps hangs over new broadband program (StateScoop) Congress grills NTIA chief about broadband funding rules (Fierce)