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Bipartisan Infrastructure Bill Offers Some Opportunities for Higher Ed

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A bipartisan Senate infrastructure bill has the United States set to make an unprecedented investment in broadband infrastructure and service affordability.

At the start of August, a bipartisan group of senators and White House officials confirmed the details of a long-awaited deal on federal infrastructure spending. The Senate passed the bill on August 10. If the House passes the bill, as expected once representatives return from the August recess, the legislation will provide $550 billion in new funding for physical infrastructure investments, including $65 billion for broadband.Footnote1 When combined with previously planned spending for the next several years, this money will mean that the federal government will invest roughly $1 trillion in the nation's "hard" infrastructure.

The Biden administration's original, more than $2 trillion American Jobs Plan included some items of specific interest to higher education, such as $12 billion to renew community college infrastructure.Footnote2 Unfortunately, those proposals did not get included in the much smaller compromise agreement. Whether any higher education-specific infrastructure programs make it into the anticipated $3.5 trillion Democratic budget reconciliation package, which is expected to begin moving soon through the Senate, remains to be seen. However, the broadband infrastructure provisions in the current legislation promise some opportunities for higher education, even if those provisions do not provide direct funding for the sector.

Before reviewing those opportunities, though, we should take a look at the pieces that form the $65 billion in broadband infrastructure funding:

  • As with the pandemic-relief packages Congress has passed, the National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA) comes away with a number of broadband development programs:
    • The Broadband Deployment Program will distribute roughly $42.5 billion to the states for extending broadband infrastructure to unserved and underserved locations and bringing community anchor institutions to at least a gigabit-per-second service level.
    • The Tribal Broadband Connectivity Program created under the December 2020 relief package will receive an additional $2 billion to build broadband infrastructure to and throughout tribal lands.
    • The "Digital Equity Act" portion of the package will receive $2.75 billion to fund the "State Digital Equity Capacity Grant Program" and the "Digital Equity Competitive Grant Program."
      • The state capacity grants will finance the development of state digital equity plans and subsequent state programs aimed at ensuring that all of a state's citizens and communities have
        • the knowledge and capabilities to participate effectively in the increasingly broadband-enabled society and economy (leading to digital equity), and
        • the broadband devices, services, and resources necessary to do so (leading to digital inclusion).
      • The competitive grants will be available to public and nonprofit entities to deliver digital equity and inclusion services and resources in local communities.
      • NTIA will award $550 million across the two grant programs each year from FY22 to FY26, with $300 million going toward state capacity and $250 million for competitive projects. In FY22, the state capacity amount will be split between $60 million to develop state plans and $240 million to pursue appropriate state activities.
    • NTIA will also receive $1 billion to fund the Middle Mile Infrastructure Deployment Program over the course of FY22–26. Middle-mile network infrastructure links the last-mile connections to individual homes, businesses, and organizations with the backbone networks that handle the overall volume of internet traffic.
  • The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) also came away with a significant new program in December 2020, the Emergency Broadband Benefit Program (EBBP). The bipartisan infrastructure bill would make the program permanent under a new name, the Affordable Connectivity Program (ACP), and provide over $14 billion to fund it.
    • Originally conceived as a relief program designed to provide subsidized broadband service and devices to households in need during the COVID-19 pandemic, the EBBP received $3.2 billion to lower the cost of broadband service for eligible recipients by $50/month ($75/month for tribal recipients), as well as to lower the cost of a broadband-enabled computer or mobile device for such households by $100.
    • Based on the FCC's pre-existing Lifeline subsidy program, the EBBP provides over five times the amount of Lifeline's monthly service subsidy and expands eligible populations to include households with Pell Grant recipients and those that experienced significant income loss due to the pandemic.
    • The ACP resolves concerns about the temporary nature of the EBBP and the adequacy of its funding in the face of expanded service populations with sustained needs. At $14.2 billion, it represents by far the largest amount of money Congress has dedicated to help individuals and families afford broadband service.
    • Significantly, the ACP extends eligibility to households within 200% of the poverty line, up from 135% under Lifeline and the EBBP. However, it lowers the monthly service subsidy to $30 per household.
  • The Rural Utilities Service of the US Department of Agriculture has long played a major role in extending broadband infrastructure and service to rural areas. The bipartisan infrastructure bill continues this responsibility by providing $2 billion in additional funding for the Distance Learning, Telemedicine, and Broadband Program.
  • These appropriations cover $64.4 billion of the $65 billion in broadband funding that the bipartisan infrastructure bill would make available. The remainder probably stems from accounting for the cost of tax-preferred bonds to facilitate private financing of broadband development.

While these programs do not include direct, dedicated allocations for higher education, colleges and universities—as well as their students—will have opportunities to benefit from the federal government's infrastructure investments. Regarding the largest of the programs—the approximately $42.5 billion for state broadband deployment grants—state plans must address three main priorities, in the following order:

  • Locations that are essentially unserved in terms of broadband, meaning that if service is available at all, it is less than 25 Megabits-per-second (Mbps) downstream (or receiving) and 3 Mbps upstream (or sending)
  • Areas that are underserved, where 80% of the locations that could be served with broadband are either unserved or have service available only at speeds less than 100 Mbps downstream / 20 Mbps upstream
  • Community anchor institutions—such as schools, libraries, healthcare facilities, and higher education institutions—that lack at least gigabit service (identified in the legislation as "eligible community anchor institutions")

As states work with their local communities and institutions to plan and pursue the expansion of broadband infrastructure and service, higher education institutions that would qualify as unserved or underserved from an institutional perspective (less than gigabit service) should find their needs on the state's agenda. The question, of course, will be how meeting those needs will fit with the higher-priority requirements to provide infrastructure and service in unserved and underserved locations. Since the latter have to be addressed first, states with particularly large unserved/underserved areas could exhaust their funding before getting to the needs of eligible community anchor institutions.

In addition, we will have to see if the funding that is provided to address the broadband needs of eligible community anchor institutions, including colleges and universities, will help those institutions connect with their state or regional research and education network (REN). Working with their relevant REN would likely allow those institutions to receive better, more affordable capacity and service while also promoting the further development of RENs for the good of all REN stakeholders. This would be consistent with the vision expressed in The Minds We Need, a proposal led by Internet2, The Quilt, CENIC, and EDUCAUSE for federal funding of REN infrastructure development. The proposal garnered the support of more than 20 additional higher education groups.Footnote3

When it comes to the digital equity programs ($2.75 billion), colleges and universities will likely be among the state agencies and public service organizations that can serve as a state's administrative entity for developing its digital equity plan. Even if they do not land the lead role in bringing a state's digital equity plan together, higher education institutions will probably figure prominently in its development and implementation, simply given the knowledge and outreach required for those activities. Colleges and universities would certainly be in the running for competitive grants to facilitate the development and delivery of services and resources to expand community awareness about making effective use of the newly available broadband resulting from the bipartisan deal.

In the near term, the broadband affordability section of the infrastructure bill is probably the most important to higher education. By making the EBBP (now the ACP) permanent, greatly increasing its funding, and maintaining Pell Grant recipients as one of the eligible populations, the affordability provision ensures that Pell students lacking affordable access to home or mobile broadband service will have a vehicle through which they might reasonably get their needs met. Unfortunately, the monthly subsidy for broadband service drops from $50 under the EBBP to $30 under the ACP. The bill's sponsors probably introduced this reduction to help finance the extension of program eligibility to households within 200% of the poverty line (versus 135% under the EBBP). Along with mandated awareness-raising efforts, the expansion of eligibility to those between 135% and 200% of the poverty line will likely lead to a significant increase in the number of program participants from that group. In combination with participation increases from other eligible populations due to greater promotion of the available benefits, the higher "above the poverty line" ceiling could potentially limit the number of Pell recipients who receive ACP benefits. Only time will tell how far the dramatic increase in funding for the program will go, given the need for affordable broadband service across the economically distressed populations eligible for assistance.

On the plus side, the broadband affordability provisions of the infrastructure bill directly address a couple of problems that may have prevented the EBBP from realizing its full potential to help Pell students. First, federal agencies that may serve ACP-eligible populations—agencies such as the US Department of Education—will have to establish data-sharing agreements with the FCC. This will allow for eligibility information regarding those populations to be added to the online National Verifier application, which was originally established to make it easier for individuals to check their eligibility to participate in the Lifeline subsidy program. Given the rapid, legislatively mandated schedule for launching the EBBP, the FCC and Department of Education did not have enough time to establish such an agreement to add Pell recipient data to the National Verifier for that program. As a result, Pell students couldn't use the application to check their eligibility and thus had to manually submit the documentation proving their eligibility, greatly slowing the pace at which they might qualify for and receive subsidized service. The new data-sharing requirement will resolve this problem and remove a disadvantage for Pell students in receiving subsidized broadband service relative to other populations already well-established in the National Verifier system.

Secondly, the previously mentioned awareness-raising requirements include a mandate for federal agencies that work with ACP-eligible populations to directly share, with those populations, information about the ACP and how to apply for it. Pell students therefore should become much more aware about the availability of the program, greatly increasing the likelihood that they will apply for and receive the subsidized service for which they are eligible. 

In the long run, the bill's provisions that will boost the deployment of broadband infrastructure, and thus the availability of broadband service, throughout unserved and underserved locations will do the most to help close the nation's digital divide as it relates to broadband access and affordability. Concerns remain, however, that even the historic, $65 billion investment in broadband that the United States will make if the bipartisan infrastructure bill becomes law may not be enough to completely close the gap. Since future Congresses will have to continue to fund—and likely to increase funding for—broadband service and device subsidies, maintaining progress on broadband affordability once the initial ACP investment has been expended could be a challenge. Nevertheless, the broadband access and affordability investment that policymakers appear ready to make represents a dramatic shift toward progress on those issues, and the higher education community will have opportunities to participate in driving that shift as well as in benefitting from it. As we look to the future, EDUCAUSE and its partners in the Minds We Need process remain hopeful that policymakers will directly address the REN infrastructure investments needed to also close the connectivity digital divide that many higher education institutions face as well.

Notes

  1. "Read the Senate's Roughly $1 Trillion Infrastructure Bill," Washington Post, August 1, 2021. Jump back to footnote 1 in the text.
  2. The Biden Administration, "FACT SHEET: The American Jobs Plan," March 31, 2021. Jump back to footnote 2 in the text.
  3. Please see Jarret Cummings, "Closing the Institutional Digital Divide: The REN Infrastructure Proposal," EDUCAUSE Review, July 23, 2021, for more details. Jump back to footnote 3 in the text.

Jarret Cummings is Senior Advisor for Policy and Government Relations at EDUCAUSE.

© 2021 Jarret Cummings. The text of this work is licensed under a Creative Commons BY-NC-ND 4.0 International License.