Protocol | Policy

From Comcast to crypto: Here’s who wins and loses in the Senate infrastructure bill

The $1.2 trillion bill covers everything from cyber to electric vehicles. But who's best positioned to seize the opportunity?

Senator Chuck Schumer

The $1 trillion infrastructure bill includes $550 billion in new spending.

Photo: Al Drago/Bloomberg via Getty Images

This story was updated Tuesday to reflect the bill's passage in the Senate.

There's a little something — and in some cases, a lotta something — for everyone in the bipartisan infrastructure bill that just passed the Senate Tuesday in a 69-to-30 vote.

The $1.2 trillion bill includes $550 billion in new spending, of which tens of billions of dollars will go toward broadband expansion, low-income internet subsidies, electric vehicle investments, charging stations, cybersecurity and more. The outpouring of federal funding gives anyone from telecom giants to device manufacturers a lot to like.

Of course, even in a bill that stretches across more than 2,700 pages, not everyone got what they wanted.

The final package still faces a fight in the House. But Protocol looked at which companies and corners of the tech sector stand to benefit most from the deal.

Who's winning?

Telecom giants, but mostly Comcast

The infrastructure bill includes a whopping $65 billion to expand broadband connectivity, including a $42.5 billion grant program that will directly fund broadband deployment in unserved and underserved parts of the country. There's also more than $14 billion set aside in internet subsidies for low-income Americans, an extension of the existing Emergency Broadband Benefit program, which will be renamed the Affordable Connectivity Program.

The bipartisan agreement also does away with some parts of President Biden's initial proposal that were the least popular with the telecom industry, including more-aggressive requirements regarding network speed and provisions that would have targeted grant funding to municipal, government-run networks.

In theory, this plan is good news for all the telecom giants: AT&T, Charter, Verizon and more. But the one that's best positioned to seize the moment is Comcast, said Blair Levin, former executive director of the National Broadband Plan and current policy adviser to New Street Research.

"They have a head start because they invested 10 years ago in trying to accomplish the same goal, which is trying to get the currently unconnected people online," Levin said, citing Comcast's low-cost Internet Essentials program. "By virtue of the staff, the relationships, the understanding of messaging and the importance of digital literacy, Comcast has skated to where the puck is going."

That said, the entire industry — that includes cable, fiber, even wireless providers — does stand to benefit from a law that puts so many billions toward expanding the pool of potential customers with relatively few strings attached for providers. The bipartisan deal also mitigated industry fears that funding might pour into fiber development in areas where cable and other alternatives already exist. "This bill ended up going with priority being for areas that are either not served at all, or areas that have lower availability," said Joel Miller, senior director of telecom policy for the tech trade group ITI, which counts Verizon and Motorola as members. "Eligible areas being defined the way they are allows wireless options to be included in funding."

Electric bus and charging-station makers, but mostly Tesla and Proterra

The infrastructure bill sets aside $7.5 billion to build a network of electric vehicle charging stations across the country. It's about half what the Biden plan initially proposed, but it's still a massive cash infusion. And who dominates the electric vehicle charging station market in the U.S. today? Tesla.

Until last month, Tesla's superchargers were open only to Tesla vehicles. Not so coincidentally, CEO Elon Musk recently announced that that was about to change, as the company prepares to expand access to other electric vehicles later this year. That makes Tesla eligible for some of that $7.5 billion in the bill, which requires that eligible stations "serve vehicles produced by more than one vehicle manufacturer."

The Zero Emissions Transportation Association, which represents Tesla among others, applauded the introduction of the bill. "Building hundreds of thousands of new charging stations will facilitate electric vehicle consumer adoption, especially in rural, hard-to-reach areas," Joe Britton, ZETA's executive director, said in a statement earlier this week.

ZETA also represents Proterra, the largest e-bus manufacturer in the U.S., which also stands out as a winner, given the bill's $5 billion investment in low- and zero-emission school buses. That and President Joe Biden's latest executive order that aims to make electric vehicles 50% of automobile sales by 2030, in part through consumer incentives, could give a boost to the whole electric vehicle industry.

Amazon (Disclosure: My husband works for Amazon)

The ecommerce giant has been on an infrastructure lobbying blitz this year, spending nearly $10 million on infrastructure issues in the first six months of 2021, according to an analysis by The Washington Post. The company pushed lawmakers on causes including electric vehicle charging and infrastructure investments in general. After all, few companies, particularly in the tech world, are quite as dependent on the country's actual physical infrastructure — i.e., roads and bridges — as Amazon is.

Jeff Bezos had been an early proponent of Biden's $2 trillion plan when it was introduced in the spring, writing in a statement, "We support the Biden administration's focus on making bold investments in American infrastructure. Both Democrats and Republicans have supported infrastructure in the past, and it's the right time to work together to make this happen."

The Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency

While a lot of the winners on our list are tech companies, it's hard to overlook the boost that the bill would give to CISA, a fledgling agency within the Department of Homeland Security that was only created in 2018. The bill includes $1 billion in grant funding to be administered over four years by CISA to help states address their cyber vulnerabilities.

CISA is increasingly taking a leading role in addressing a spate of ransomware attacks that have crippled physical infrastructure, from oil pipelines to hospitals. On Thursday, CISA Director Jen Easterly announced a new collaboration with Microsoft, Amazon and Google to counter ransomware and cloud-computing attacks.

Increased funding for states will, of course, help cybersecurity vendors. But it also stands to benefit a much broader range of tech companies as states look to replace legacy systems that often lead to vulnerabilities. "Even though the money is going to go to state and local governments, they're probably going to be reaching toward commercial solutions for a lot of this," said Mike Flynn, ITI's senior director and former staffer on the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs committee. "It's not just cybersecurity providers that are going to benefit."

Who's losing (so far)?

Cryptocurrency exchanges like Coinbase

Coinbase CEO Brian Armstrong broke his own no-politics rule this week with a feisty Twitter thread, shredding some aspects of the bill that deal with cryptocurrency. Specifically, Armstrong objected to a part of the bill that would require even miners and node operators to report their transactions to the IRS like traditional brokers. Such a provision would "have a profound negative impact on crypto in the US and unintentionally push more innovation offshore," Armstrong wrote.

A trio of senators have since introduced an amendment to exempt miners and some others from the requirement, which Armstrong and civil liberties groups like Fight for the Future have been promoting. The Blockchain Association, which is made up of more than 100 crypto companies and groups, also supported the amendment. That amendment ultimately failed.

But even if it hadn't, Armstrong argued that levying these requirements even on intermediaries like Coinbase would put the cryptocurrency industry on unequal footing with traditional financial institutions. "Policymakers play a critical role in ensuring that tech innovation can flourish in the United States," Armstrong wrote. "I hope that they keep this in mind and don't impose draconian burdens on an industry that will play a major role in the innovative future of our country."

Muni networks

When Biden first introduced his infrastructure plan, proponents of municipal networks had high hopes that the bill might radically redefine the market by prioritizing government-run networks and infusing the telecom industry with a raft of new, more affordable competitors. But those provisions, which have been controversial among both Republicans and telecom giants, dropped out of the bipartisan deal.

"To me, it looks like the goals of changing the market have been deferred in the effort of developing a bipartisan compromise," said Christopher Mitchell, director of the Community Broadband Networks Initiative with the Institute for Local Self-Reliance. "The focus is putting money into areas that have nothing, as opposed to trying to be more aggressive and fix the market for everyone."

There are still reasons to support the bill, Mitchell said in a tweet this week, like the fact that it will "give states a shot to show that they are better at distributing money than the federal government."

The bill also doesn't write municipal networks out completely. It says states cannot exclude co-ops, nonprofits, local governments and others when it's considering which providers to give funding to. That, Levin pointed out, goes against laws in states across the country that outright forbid municipal networks.

In theory, that could mean a leg up for muni networks in those states compared to the status quo. But in practice, Levin said, "There may be a tendency to say, 'In this competitive program, they're all eligible. They just didn't win.'"

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