The Accessible, Affordable Internet for All (AAIA) Act, introduced by Democrats in the House and Senate, would make $80 billion available for gigabit broadband in areas where such service is not available today. The act also includes an additional $14 billion for broadband affordability and adoption.
Telecompetitor talked to and exchanged emails with Gary Bolton, president and CEO of the Fiber Broadband Association, about the act and how FBA would like to see broadband infrastructure funding awarded.
AAIA Broadband Act
“What we like about the act is [that it calls for] gigabit symmetrical service,” Bolton said.
Existing broadband programs, such as the Rural Digital Opportunity Fund, have incentivized providers to deploy higher speed service, and 85% of RDOF deployments are expected to support the highest-speed tier, which calls for 1 Gbps downstream. But the upstream requirement for the gigabit service is 500 Mbps. And some RDOF funding went to deployments providing speeds as low as 25/ 3 Mbps.
As the U.S. seeks to make broadband available to all Americans, the ultimate goal should be fiber, Bolton said.
“Optical fiber provides an optically pure, noise-free environment for signals (carried over light waves) that results in the fastest, highest capacity, lowest latency communications,” he said.
According to Bolton, the proposed AAIA Act calls for funding to be awarded based on a competitive basis, which could involve a reverse auction – the approach used for the RDOF program and for the predecessor Connect America Fund (CAF) II program. In a reverse auction, funding goes to the entity that commits to deliver service at the lowest level of funding.
If the AAIA becomes law, Bolton would like to see policy makers invest for the long term and encourage fiber deployment. He weighed in on the ongoing gigabit fixed wireless debate, arguing that fixed wireless can support gigabit speeds if there is a clear line of sight and the customers are within about 500 feet of their specific serving tower/antenna.
“In high cost areas with challenging topologies and low subscriber density, there are scenarios where you need to use some other tools in the toolbox like fixed wireless access (FWA),” Bolton wrote in an email. “You might need to connect a home across a lake for instance. In those cases, FWA can be used as an interim option to connect subscribers as you work toward providing FTTH [fiber-to-the-home] in the fullness of time.”
FWA is “on the path” to FTTH, Bolton said. “You are deploying fiber to within 500 feet of the subscriber and eventually the service provider will deploy fiber that last 500 feet for customer satisfaction,” he observed.
He cautioned, however, that this is not the case with low earth orbit (LEO) satellites, the technology that SpaceX, one of the biggest provisional RDOF winners, plans to use.
“When LEO satellites are deployed, that investment is literally stranded in space,” he said. “It is a path to nowhere. . . As a matter of fact, a LEO [satellite] falls out of the sky in five years. . . There is never a circumstance where satellite (LEO or geostationary) should be subsidized with taxpayer dollars.”
The upshot, he said, is that for any project, “you want to deploy as much fiber as deep as you can,” he said. “From there, you can leverage some interim technologies in high cost locations to connect homes as long as you are building a path to fiber.”
Asked whether FBA believes AAIA money should be used for fixed wireless, Bolton said FBA believes in “Fiber First” and suggested that AAIA money should only be used for fixed wireless when no one bids to deploy fiber to an area.
Bolton expects to see the AAIA Act rolled into a broader infrastructure bill and noted that FBA and other stakeholders are seeking to obtain support for the broadband legislation from Republicans.
Beyond Deployment Funding
Other provisions of the AAIA broadband Act:
- Allocating $5 billion over five years for low-interest financing of broadband deployment through a new secured loan program; and
- Establishing a new office within the National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA) to ensure efficient use of federal money.
- Requiring an affordable option for internet service plans offered on the newly-built infrastructure funded by the legislation;
- Authorizing an additional $6 billion for the recently established Emergency Broadband Connectivity Fund, which provides a $50 monthly stipend for internet plans for low-income Americans anywhere in the country, or $75 for consumers on tribal lands; and
- Directing the Federal Communication Commission (FCC) to collect and publicize data on prices charged for broadband service throughout the country.
- Providing over $1 billion to establish grant programs for states to close gaps in broadband adoption, as well as digital inclusion projects for organizations and local communities to implement
- Including $2 billion to enable students without internet at home to participate in remote learning
- Authorizing funding for Wi-Fi on school buses