Yesterday, U.S. Senators Michael Bennet (D-Colo.), Angus King (I-Maine), and Rob Portman (R-Ohio) introduced the Broadband Reform and Investment to Drive Growth in the Economy (BRIDGE) Act of 2021. The bipartisan bill allocates $40 billion to establish a new fund called the “Broadband Access Fund” that the National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA) would manage. The $40 billion would be a one-time investment allocated as block grants to states, Tribal governments, U.S. territories, and the District of Columbia who could then sub-grant the funds with the goal “to promote access to affordable, high-speed broadband and digital equity.”
The BRIDGE Act could advance digital equity and enhance digital inclusion initiatives nationwide in two main ways:
- Grantees can use the “Broadband Access Fund” to both “A) deploy broadband and B) fund efforts that bridge the digital divide, increase the adoption of broadband, and facilitate affordable access to broadband.”
- A minimum of 50% of the grantee’s total grant amount is required to be allocated to address ‘unserved areas or areas with substantial poverty’
Meaning, not only are digital inclusion activities eligible expenses for the grant funds, at least 50% of the funds must be allocated to either the rural unserved areas or most vulnerable populations in non-rural areas.
In addition, the bill outlines the eligible uses of the funds and specifically includes ‘affordable broadband programs,’ ‘digital inclusion such as digital literacy and equity programs;’ ‘broadband adoption’, and ‘install internet and Wi-Fi infrastructure or providing free or reduced-cost broadband within a multi-family residential building,’ in addition to the broadband deployment activities.
Other important information to know:
- For deployment projects, sub-grantees (ie. the organizations building the networks) must provide at least one discount subscription option for low-income customers in the form either of prepaid service or an affordable monthly rate that does not include data caps;
- For deployment projects, the bill prioritizes investments in symmetrical gigabit-level service and sets 100/100 Mbps as the minimum for broadband service.
- To receive the funds, each ‘eligible entity’ (ie. states, territories, Tribe and DC) would submit an application to the NTIA
- Only one application per ‘eligible entity’ would be considered. The bill encourages local and regional organizations to coordinate with the state, tribe, territory or DC government.
The BRIDGE act uses NDIA’s definitions of ‘digital equity’ and ‘digital inclusion’ and the American Library Association’s definition of digital literacy. NDIA endorses the bill and Angela was quoted in the bill’s press release.
The Bridge Act is a model bipartisan bill, addressing both broadband availability and the need for increased broadband adoption. All geographies, rural, urban, suburban and tribal have households who cannot afford internet service or a computer and/or do not have the necessary digital skills to use it as the essential tool it is. NDIA thanks Senators Bennet, King and Portman for recognizing this reality and their work to rectify it.