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Biden sets June deadline for $42 billion broadband funding outline

The announced deadline come prior to a much-awaited update to the FCC's US broadband map, giving a clearer image of the internet challenges facing the nation

President Biden, delivering a speech on high-speed internet in front of a US flag

The US government is set to outline its plans for providing over $42 billion of broadband infrastructure grants to states and territories, in an effort to provide high-speed internet access nationwide.

President Joe Biden’s administration has said that by June 30, it will lay out its strategy for allocating the $42.45 billion in funds provided through its Broadband Equity, Access, and Deployment (BEAD) Program.

This is encompassed within the 2021 Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act (Bipartisan Infrastructure Bill), which provided $1.2 trillion in spending across a range of areas such as transportation, highways, broadband, water and the electric grid.

The BEAD Program is specifically focused on ensuring that high-speed internet is installed in “unserved locations”, defined as those that fail to meet the FCC’s benchmark speeds for internet to be known as ‘broadband’ (25/3 Mbits/sec).

Additionally, the program will seek to boost speeds in “underserved” areas, those without access to speeds of 100Mbits/sec down and 20Mbits/sec up, the proposed figure for the FCC’s new minimum broadband speeds.

The landscape of broadband access in the United States is complex, and beset with inaccurate measurements. Current distribution guidelines, led by the  Commerce Department's National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA) agency, are currently based on the FCC’s Form 477, last meaningfully updated in 2019. However, a draft of the FCC’s new map, based on data collected between 30 June and 1 September 2022, will be released on 18 November.

Since its release, the Form 477 map has been subject to criticism, most notably for its considering a census block as ‘covered’ with broadband if even one respondent within the block reported that they had access. 

The new draft seeks to combat these oversights by allowing individuals to challenge the published results, if they are inaccurate reflections of available internet services in selected areas. State and tribal governments will also be able to make challenges on behalf of bulk communities, and in November 2021 commerce secretary Gina Raimondo called for states to "show us a plan that guarantees every single person in your state has access to high-speed affordable internet."

In the FCC’s Fourteenth Broadband Deployment Report, released in January 2021, the agency noted that “fewer than 14.5 million Americans” lacked access to its benchmark broadband speeds. Although this represents a 20% increase in access since the end of 2019, it clearly illustrates the gap separating many millions of citizens from basic broadband speeds.

Data released by Microsoft in 2021 suggests that a far larger figure — as high as 120.4 million people in the US — do not use the internet at broadband speeds. Noting the basic infrastructure still lacking in some communities, some have criticised the FCC’s move to increase its minimum benchmarks for broadband.

“Today, more than 42 million people in our country — 42 million people — do not have access to high-speed Internet,” said Kamala Harris, vice president of the United States in a February address.

“Half of all the people who do not have high-speed Internet say it is because the monthly cost is too high.  Well, the President and I know that the cost of living has gone up, and we are working hard to help working families pay their bills.”

In all, the Bipartisan Infrastructure Bill included $65 billion for improving American internet access. This includes other projects such as the Affordable Connectivity Program (ACP), administered by FCC, which comprises $14.2 billion earmarked for providing low-income households with discounted broadband services. For those eligible, this is available in the form of vouchers to lower internet bills by $30 per month, or $75 per month on tribal lands, as well as through one-time $100 discount on the purchase of a laptop, desktop or tablet.

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14 million households are believed to have signed up to the ACP to date, and companies directly involved with the program include internet service providers (ISPs) such as AT&T, Comcast, and Verizon. 

Satellite connectivity providers such as DISH and SpaceX’s Starlink have sought to provide broadband to underserved rural customers across the United States, by way of connection with its low-Earth orbit (LEO) satellite constellation. In July, the FCC gave SpaceX approval to provide Wi-Fi to moving vehicles, including large trucks, planes, and ships, and the potential for satellite broadband to boost rural business is strong.

Despite this, satellite broadband in its current state lacks the maturity and network load to cater to every unserved or underserved American, and the government continues to play a major role in ensuring that ISPs deliver the speeds they promise, and expand networks wherever possible.

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