At the end of 2021, President Biden signed a $1.2 trillion infrastructure package — The Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act — that provides historic funding levels to improve public works, including roads, bridges, highways, internet access and the power grid, as well as to mitigate the effects of climate change. (The bill does not include funding for social policy, which is covered under separate legislation known as “Build Back Better.”)
What the Infrastructure and Jobs Act Means for the Telecom Industry
The Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act will increase the number of high-speed broadband customers in the U.S. market, which will stimulate new competition among internet service providers (ISPs). The legislation will also inject capital necessary to favorably shift the cost/benefit equation that has historically limited investment in rural areas and will incentivize carriers to increase coverage of low-income households.
Why 'Build Back Better' Matters for Americans
Specific Allotments for Telecom
There is roughly $65 billion set aside for broadband infrastructure and affordability initiatives. Here’s a breakdown of that allotment:
$42.5 billion for the Broadband Equity, Access and Deployment Program
$14.2 billion to extend and increase broadband subsidies under the Affordable Connectivity Fund (previously the Emergency Broadband Benefit Program, established as part of the stimulus package passed in December 2020)
$2.75 billion to promote digital equity, support digital inclusion activities, and aid states in broadband adoption efforts among residents
$2 billion for the broadband connectivity fund to support tribal areas
$2 billion for rural utilities service grants
$1 billion for middle-mile broadband deployment
$600 million for private activity bonds for broadband projects
In the Short Term
Multiple major initiatives included in the infrastructure package will require ISPs to begin assessing how best to accommodate broadband growth in new or less saturated markets.
Through its $42.5 billion Broadband Equity, Access and Deployment Program, the infrastructure legislation will support broadband buildouts in unserved areas (defined as those with broadband speeds of less than 25 Mbps for download and 3 Mbps for upload) and underserved areas (those with speeds of less than 100 Mbps for download and 20 Mbps for upload). This program is set to be established within 180 days of the act being signed into law.
Another $14.2 billion allocated to the Affordable Connectivity Fund will create a permanent $30-a-month subsidy program to help low-income Americans afford internet access. Additional programs will assist with equity and inclusion, including computer training, devices and public computing centers at anchor institutions.
The specifics around geographic allocation of funding and carriers’ application requirements are still undefined, but carriers should already be planning for the potential network build-outs that best align with their footprint and growth strategies.
The Big Picture
The lack of available, affordable internet access throughout large portions of the United States (often called the “digital divide”) has had a significant impact on education, healthcare and economic opportunities across the country. Funding from this infrastructure package will serve as a catalyst for areas where the cost of deploying broadband has historically outweighed the benefit for private sector investment. Given the nation’s reliance on high-speed internet for nearly every facet of life for the past 18 months, though, the urgency and necessity of broadband access has never been clearer.
There are an estimated 14 to 42 million Americans with limited broadband access, according to the FCC and the research group BroadbandNow. In addition to the social and equity benefits the bill will provide by helping to narrow the digital divide, there will also be significant economic opportunities for carriers and the communities they’re serving.
With those opportunities will likely come new reporting complexities and operational challenges. The funding will likely be contingent on carriers providing formal reporting to evidence the network performance requirements of the act, for instance. Operationally, the increase in customers might exacerbate complexities regarding revenue recognition, network maintenance and increased labor or automation requirements for some companies.
While the National Telecommunications and Information Administration works out the details for allocating and distributing funding, now is a good time for carriers to assess their business and operational support system capabilities for managing a broader network and influx of customers and their ERP’s ability to address the financial and regulatory requirements associated with the new funding.
A major challenge to the broadband deployment this legislation aims to achieve is the fact that many underserved populations are in remote areas that are difficult to access. This means expanding broadband coverage will not happen overnight; it will likely be years before we can reasonably close the digital divide. Given this fact, telecom companies need to continue exploring cost-effective solutions — including emerging technologies and public-private partnerships — that can be implemented in the short term.
Here are some questions that frame the path forward for companies in the telecom space:
How can emerging technologies, such as high-speed satellite internet service, complement the terrestrial infrastructure developments covered in this bill?
What requirements will be imposed on ISPs to “future proof” networks for long-term broadband enhancements (e.g. fiber vs. copper lines)?
What will the investment in expanding broadband infrastructure mean for workforce needs among telecom carriers?
How do companies plan to stay competitive on new projects that arise because of funding from the infrastructure bill?
What sort of marketing and sales components will companies need to succeed in emerging markets?
What are the competitive barriers for telecom projects in a given buildout area? Have competitors cut prices or incentivized customers to enter into long-term contracts?
Are there opportunities for ISPs to pursue public-private partnerships to share the costs of network expansion?