When will the infrastructure bill get passed by Congress and enacted? And when could telecoms start to see some of the $65 billion in available broadband deployment grants from the legislation?
These were two big questions on-deck Wednesday that former FCC Commissioner Robert McDowell, now a partner at the Cooley law firm, and his former agency colleague, Jonathan Adelstein, now president/CEO of the Wireless Infrastructure Association, unpacked in a webinar.
Inside Towers reported that, even though the House set a target date of September 27 to vote on the Senate-approved infrastructure bill, some members threatened to withhold support without a vote on a $3.5 trillion spending package. This, plus other large pieces of legislation, including the budget and the debt ceiling, are “gumming up the works,” according to McDowell.
He characterized the House as a place where “a lot of brinkmanship” is occurring by “different factions of each party. Folks have retreated to their corners,” he summarized. Overall, he described the situation as, “a big stew creating a tremendous amount of uncertainty.” Lobbyists McDowell has spoken with don’t believe the situation will be resolved until Thanksgiving.
Adelstein believes the infrastructure bill could be voted on by the end of the year. Of the $65 billion total for broadband deployment, $42.5 billion is to be distributed by the National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA). NTIA then sends the money to states to finally be distributed to telecoms.
Adelstein cautioned that NTIA and the states can change the parameters of how the money is used. For example, now the bill language is technology neutral. It doesn’t favor fiber over wireless. That can potentially change. “That’s an expensive undertaking if we need to re-litigate all those battles,” he said. Both men urged WIA members to become familiar with their federal and state legislators and governors. “Say ‘hi’ before you need something,” quipped McDowell.
As for how long it might be before money is actually available, McDowell said good broadband availability maps are needed first. Adelstein said guesses range between six months to a year before those are ready.
“At some point it’s pencils down and you’ve got to go with what you’ve got,” added McDowell. He noted the bill text says funding will be distributed out over five years. McDowell believes it will take “most of that” time.
Adelstein said if the bill is enacted by Thanksgiving, then if the maps are done by the first quarter of 2022, then NTIA needs to develop a distribution plan. “We’re definitely talking 2022, first quarter, at the earliest. It could be later,” he posited.
Finally, McDowell took a crack at guessing the timing. “In eight days, it will be the fourth quarter. It’s 2022 before some of the big decisions are made, and the maps won’t be available until 2022 at the earliest.” He also emphasized that not all states will be equipped to distribute the money.
By Leslie Stimson, Inside Towers Washington Bureau Chief