To Close the Digital Divide, Broadband Infrastructure Funds Must Be Spent Efficiently
States seeking broadband-deployment grants under the federal Broadband Equity, Access, and Deployment (BEAD) program created by last year’s infrastructure bill now have some guidance as to what will be required of them, with the National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA) issuing details last week in a new notice of funding opportunity (NOFO).
All things considered, the NOFO could be worse. It is broadly in line with congressional intent, insofar as the requirements aim to direct the bulk of the funding toward connecting the unconnected. It declares that the BEAD program’s principal focus will be to deploy service to “unserved” areas that lack any broadband service or that can only access service with download speeds of less than 25 Mbps and upload speeds of less than 3 Mbps, as well as to “underserved” areas with speeds of less than 100/20 Mbps. One may quibble with the definition of “underserved,” but these guidelines are within the reasonable range of deployment benchmarks.
There are, however, also some subtle (and not-so-subtle) mandates the NTIA would introduce that could work at cross-purposes with the BEAD program’s larger goals and create damaging precedent that could harm deployment over the long term.
Some NOFO Requirements May Impinge Broadband Deployment
The infrastructure bill’s statutory text declares that:
Access to affordable, reliable, high-speed broadband is essential to full participation in modern life in the United States.
In keeping with that commitment, the bill established the BEAD program to finance the buildout of as much high-speed broadband access as possible for as many people as possible. This is necessarily an exercise in economizing and managing tradeoffs. There are many unserved consumers who need to be connected or underserved consumers who need access to faster connections, but resources are finite.
It is a relevant background fact to note that broadband speeds have grown consistently faster in recent decades, while quality-adjusted prices for broadband service have fallen. This context is important to consider given the prevailing inflationary environment into which BEAD funds will be deployed. The broadband industry is healthy, but it is certainly subject to distortion by well-intentioned but poorly directed federal funds.
This is particularly important given that Congress exempted the BEAD program from review under the Administrative Procedure Act (APA), which otherwise would have required NTIA to undertake much more stringent processes to demonstrate that implementation is effective and aligned with congressional intent.
Which is why it is disconcerting that some of the requirements put forward by NTIA could serve to deplete BEAD funding without producing an appropriate return. In particular, some elements of the NOFO suggest that NTIA may be interested in using BEAD funding as a means to achieve de facto rate regulation on broadband.
The Infrastructure Act requires that each recipient of BEAD funding must offer at least one low-cost broadband service option for eligible low-income consumers. For those low-cost plans, the NOFO bars the use of data caps, also known as “usage-based billing” or UBB. As Geoff Manne and Ian Adams have noted:
In simple terms, UBB allows networks to charge heavy users more, thereby enabling them to recover more costs from these users and to keep prices lower for everyone else. In effect, UBB ensures that the few heaviest users subsidize the vast majority of other users, rather than the other way around.
Thus, data caps enable providers to optimize revenue by tailoring plans to relatively high-usage or low-usage consumers and to build out networks in ways that meet patterns of actual user demand.
While not explicitly a regime to regulate rates, using the inducement of BEAD funds to dictate that providers may not impose data caps would have some of the same substantive effects. Of course, this would apply only to low-cost plans, so one might expect relatively limited impact. The larger concern is the precedent it would establish, whereby regulators could deem it appropriate to impose their preferences on broadband pricing, notwithstanding market forces.
But the actual impact of these de facto price caps could potentially be much larger. In one section, the NOFO notes that each “eligible entity” for BEAD funding (states, U.S. territories, and the District of Columbia) also must include in its initial and final proposals “a middle-class affordability plan to ensure that all consumers have access to affordable high-speed internet.”
The requirement to ensure “all consumers” have access to “affordable high-speed internet” is separate and apart from the requirement that BEAD recipients offer at least one low-cost plan. The NOFO is vague about how such “middle-class affordability plans” will be defined, suggesting that the states will have flexibility to “adopt diverse strategies to achieve this objective.”
For example, some Eligible Entities might require providers receiving BEAD funds to offer low-cost, high-speed plans to all middle-class households using the BEAD-funded network. Others might provide consumer subsidies to defray subscription costs for households not eligible for the Affordable Connectivity Benefit or other federal subsidies. Others may use their regulatory authority to promote structural competition. Some might assign especially high weights to selection criteria relating to affordability and/or open access in selecting BEAD subgrantees. And others might employ a combination of these methods, or other methods not mentioned here.
The concern is that, coupled with the prohibition on data caps for low-cost plans, states are being given a clear instruction: put as many controls on providers as you can get away with. It would not be surprising if many, if not all, state authorities simply imported the data-cap prohibition and other restrictions from the low-cost option onto plans meant to satisfy the “middle-class affordability plan” requirements.
Focusing on the Truly Unserved and Underserved
The “middle-class affordability” requirements underscore another deficiency of the NOFO, which is the extent to which its focus drifts away from the unserved. Given widely available high-speed broadband access and the acknowledged pressing need to connect the roughly 5% of the country (mostly in rural areas) who currently lack that access, it is a complete waste of scarce resources to direct BEAD funds to the middle class.
Some of the document’s other problems, while less dramatic, are deficient in a similar respect. For example, the NOFO requires that states consider government-owned networks (GON) and open-access models on the same terms as private providers; it also encourages states to waive existing laws that bar GONs. The problem, of course, is that GONs are best thought of as a last resort to be deployed only where no other provider is available. By and large, GONs have tended to become utter failures that require constant cross-subsidization from taxpayers and that crowd out private providers.
Similarly, the NOFO heavily prioritizes fiber, both in terms of funding priorities and in the definitions it sets forth to deem a location “unserved.” For instance, it lays out:
For the purposes of the BEAD Program, locations served exclusively by satellite, services using entirely unlicensed spectrum, or a technology not specified by the Commission of the Broadband DATA Maps, do not meet the criteria for Reliable Broadband Service and so will be considered “unserved.”
In many rural locations, wireless internet service providers (WISPs) use unlicensed spectrum to provide fast and reliable broadband. The NOFO could be interpreted as deeming homes served by such WISPs as underserved or underserved, while preferencing the deployment of less cost-efficient fiber. This would be another example of wasteful priorities.
Finally, the BEAD program requires states to forbid “unjust or unreasonable network management practices.” This is obviously a nod to the “Internet conduct standard” and other network-management rules promulgated by the Federal Communications Commission’s since-withdrawn 2015 Open Internet Order. As such, it would serve to provide cover for states to impose costly and inappropriate net-neutrality obligations on providers.
The BEAD program represents a straightforward opportunity to narrow, if not close, the digital divide. If NTIA can restrain itself, these funds could go quite a long way toward solving the hard problem of connecting more Americans to the internet. Unfortunately, as it stands, some of the NOFO’s provisions threaten to lose that proper focus.
Congress opted not to include in the original infrastructure bill these potentially onerous requirements that NTIA now seeks, all without an APA rulemaking. It would be best if the agency returned to the NOFO with clarifications that would fix these deficiencies.
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