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Commerce Agency Has Billions for Broadband, No Confirmed Leader

Nov. 23, 2021, 10:00 AM

The National Telecommunications and Information Administration, tasked with distributing billions of dollars in funding for broadband, awaits Senate action on a new leader to steer the effort.

Congress allocated $42.5 billion to the Commerce Department agency in its infrastructure package to distribute broadband grants to states. The NTIA has not had a permanent head in more than two years.

The agency only has six months to implement a program for distributing the funds. Democratic senators said filling the position is crucial to getting funding out the door.

“We have a historic opportunity with this bill to start closing the digital divide, but to do so we need to put in place a leader at the NTIA to ensure a swift and successful process,” Sen. Michael Bennet (D-Colo.) said.

President Joe Biden waited until 10 months into his term to nominate attorney Alan Davidson to lead the agency. The Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee has not announced when it will hold a hearing on Davidson’s nomination.

Lawmakers gave NTIA a leading role in handling the broadband subsidies instead of the independent Federal Communications Commission, which historically has overseen such efforts. Congress saw NTIA as better-positioned to distribute broadband funds because of its close relationship with state and local authorities.

The agency has not had a permanent head since May 2019, when former President Donald Trump‘s pick, David Redl, resigned.

NTIA began addressing staffing needs before the infrastructure bill was signed into law to get a head start, a senior Commerce Department official said during a recent press briefing.

Acting leaders have the legal authority to make any decision a Senate-confirmed leader can make. But any steps Acting Assistant Secretary of Commerce for Communications and Information Evelyn Remaley takes to implement the broadband program before Davidson arrives will be subject to his review.

Under the infrastructure law, the NTIA must establish the Broadband Equity, Access, and Deployment Program and begin awarding grants to states within 180 days after Biden signed the measure Nov. 15. NTIA did not respond to a request for comment.

Many logistical implementation details must be hashed out. For example, the law requires every grant recipient—whether it’s a municipality, a cooperative, or an internet service provider—to offer a low-cost affordable broadband plan.

The NTIA will have to seek input from states and the telecom industry to figure out the best way to implement low-cost plans, the Commerce Department official said.

Grants also will be distributed for broadband infrastructure construction. The department has to develop a plan to determine what is the best technology for infrastructure future-proofing, scalability, and speed, the official said.

The NTIA also will have to work with states to establish a process for identifying qualified providers, vetting them, and overseeing them.

Commerce is required to build a process to foster competition by requiring that state authorities consider traditional and nontraditional providers, the senior official said.

Advancing Pick

Davidson has been Mozilla’s vice president of global policy, trust, and security since September 2018. He has prior experience at Commerce, serving as the first director of digital economy under former President Barack Obama.

Sen. Ben Ray Luján (D-N.M) said he hoped all of the 67 senators who voted in favor of the bipartisan infrastructure bill would vote to confirm Davidson “so that we can implement the program that we all supported.”

“It’s imperative,” Luján said. “With those 67 votes, there’s no reason why that shouldn’t go straight to the floor.”

To contact the reporter on this story: Maria Curi at mcuri@bloombergindustry.com

To contact the editors responsible for this story: Kibkabe Araya at karaya@bloombergindustry.com; Keith Perine at kperine@bloomberglaw.com

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