Tennessee senators push back on NTIA fiber preference ahead of oversight hearing

Senators Marsha Blackburn and Bill Hagerty of Tennessee pressed the National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA) to reconsider its decision to prioritize broadband funding for fiber projects, arguing this could negatively impact rural areas.

In a letter to Commerce Secretary Gina Raimondo and NTIA chief Alan Davidson, Blackburn and Hagerty said the recently announced decision to prioritize fiber “makes no sense for many areas of rural America,” noting some remote topography makes fiber rollouts virtually impossible. They added the NTIA’s preference flies in the face of what Congress intended when it allocated $65 billion for broadband deployments in the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act.

“Nothing in the text suggests that Congress intended for NTIA to preference fiber at the expense of fixed wireless, mobile wireless, satellite or other viable technologies,” they wrote.

The pair pointed out that broadband maps released by the Tennessee Department of Economic and Community Development in April show that fixed wireless and mobile wireless have a strong presence in their state while “there is no fiber in hard-to-serve areas at all.” Expanding access to fixed wireless and mobile technology rather than prioritizing fiber “would more quickly and cost effectively close the digital divide,” they claimed.

Blackburn and Hagerty ultimately urged the NTIA to reconsider its position. The request is notable given Blackburn holds a seat on the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee, which has oversight of issues related to broadband and communications technology. The Committee has an NTIA oversight hearing on its docket scheduled for June 9. Senators Roger Wicker and Cathy McMorris Rodgers, the ranking members of the Committee, recently sent a letter to Raimondo flagging concerns that broadband funds might be used to fund overbuild projects.

New Street Research analyst Blair Levin told Fierce last month that one of the reasons the NTIA may have prioritized fiber is that the multi-billion investment “is not a once in a decade thing” but more of a one and done funding effort. Thus, those in charge of allocating the funds want to ensure they contribute to the deployment of the most future-proof technology “unless there really is no other alternative.”

NTIA chief Davidson has said that even though it wants to prioritize fiber, the agency fully expects satellite and other non-fiber technologies will receive plenty of funding, particularly in high-cost areas that might otherwise go unserved. On the overbuild issue, he said NTIA will insist funding is not used in areas where other government money has already been awarded.