Here’s what the U.S. infrastructure bill has in store for broadband

The U.S. Senate set the stage for action this week on a sprawling infrastructure package which contains billions in broadband funding, on Friday approving a motion to proceed with a freshly negotiated version of the legislation.

Details of the bill were previously limited to information provided in a White House fact sheet following the latest parlay between the President and Senate leaders. But now, a full 2,700-page draft of the legislation has been released to the public.

Here’s what’s inside:

Broadband Equity, Access and Deployment program

The bill sets aside $42.45 billion for a new Broadband Equity, Access and Deployment program, which is set to be established no later than 180 days after the legislation is signed into law. The program would provide grants to eligible entities “to bridge the digital divide” through broadband deployments to un- and underserved areas. The bill calls for $100 million to be allocated to each of the 50 states, with an additional $100 million set to be divided equally among the U.S. Virgin Islands, Guam, American Samoa and the Northern Mariana Islands.

Projects focused on connecting un- and underserved areas will receive top consideration, with proposals also prioritized based on targeting of “high-poverty areas,” the speeds of the proposed service and how quickly the projects can be completed.  

Non-profits, public-private partnerships, private companies, utilities and local governments will all be eligible for funding. Grants may not be used to purchase fiber cable or optical transmission equipment manufactured in China.

Middle Mile grant program

The bill also calls for the establishment of a grant program to support deployments of middle mile infrastructure, with $1 billion set aside for this purpose. Middle mile infrastructure is defined as broadband infrastructure which “does not connect directly to an end-user location” and can include leased dark fiber, interoffice transport, backhaul, carrier-neutral exchange facilities, undersea cables and transport connectivity to data centers. It also includes “wired or private wireless broadband infrastructure” such as microwave capacity and radio tower access.

Middle mile grants may not exceed 70 percent of the total project cost.

Affordable Connectivity Program

A total of $14.2 billion is allocated for an Affordable Connectivity benefit program, which is an extension of the existing Emergency Broadband Benefit program. The program is set to be administered by the Federal Communications Commission, with funding “available until expended.”

Digital Equity Act

The legislation includes the passage of the Digital Equity Act, which would establish grant programs to help states fund digital equity plans and other digital inclusion efforts, including broadband deployments. These include a $250 million Digital Equity Competitive Grant Program to “promote digital inclusion activities and spur greater adoption of broadband” and a State Capacity Grant Program which would receive $240 million in fiscal year 2022 and $300 million each in fiscal years 2023 through 2026.

In order to become law, the bill (H.R.3684) must be passed by Congress and signed by President Joe Biden.