Democrats Propose $20 Billion in Broadband Infrastructure Spending

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By Lydia Beyoud and Kyle Daly

Senate Democrats proposed spending $20 billion to support broadband deployment Jan. 24, as part of a $1 trillion plan to spur infrastructure investment and job creation.

The funding would be made available to projects currently eligible under existing programs at the Departments of Commerce and Agriculture, according to an 11-page summary of the infrastructure plan. Grant funds for middle-mile and last-mile fiber networks and wireless broadband access would also be made available under the Democratic proposal.

If Democrats and Republicans can come to a consensus on an infrastructure bill, such broadband-related provisions are likely to be included. Extending broadband access to underserved communities is a popular idea among lawmakers from both parties. That could benefit a wide range of companies, including backbone network providers such as Verizon Communications Inc. and CenturyLink Inc. and wireless tower owners like American Tower Corp., along with myriad smaller telecom companies.

The Democrats’ proposed legislative package is currently only “a blueprint” for actual legislation, Senate Minority Leader Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) said at a Jan. 24 press conference. But with it, the Senate minority has staked out its position on infrastructure legislation.

Broadband’s Place In Infrastructure

The Democratic infrastructure proposal diverges from ideas floated by President Donald Trump during the campaign that centered around tax credits, rather than direct federal spending.

But GOP lawmakers have pointed out that Republican-skewing rural areas continue to lag urban areas in broadband speeds, availability and adoption. Members of both parties launched the Senate Broadband Caucus last summer to explore ways Congress can spur greater broadband deployment.

It’s still unclear what congressional Republicans might propose, however. Rep. Greg Walden (R-Ore.), chairman of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, told Bloomberg BNA Jan. 24 that the “financing question and amount” for a broadband proposal remain undetermined.

Walden said he’s counting on the Federal Communications Commission to turn its attention to issues such as lowering costs for wireless tower siting in order to encourage more private broadband investment. But Congress has a role to play in ensuring broadband is a part of any infrastructure package, he said.

“I’m talking to the new administration. I think there’s room to do a lot of infrastructure improvement” on broadband, said Walden.

To contact the reporters on this story: Lydia Beyoud in Washington at lbeyoud@bna.com; Kyle Daly in Washington at kdaly@bna.com

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Keith Perine at kperine@bna.com

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