Protocol | Policy

An unsung, unnamed bureaucrat could soon be in charge of closing the digital divide

If the Senate infrastructure bill gets through the House, the NTIA will be in charge of $42.5 billion for broadband. Who will lead the agency is still anyone's guess.

A person working at a laptop.

If passed, the Senate infrastructure bill allocates a whopping $42.5 billion for broadband deployment to states and local governments, all of which will be overseen by the NTIA administrator.

Photo: Annie Spratt/Unsplash

As far as telecom regulators go, the National Telecommunications and Information Administration, or NTIA, has always felt like something of a bit player compared to the Federal Communications Commission.

While the FCC has soaked up the spotlight over the years — battling with Howard Stern and Janet Jackson, sparking a bot-fueled battle over net neutrality rules and overseeing billions of dollars in funding to close the digital divide — the NTIA's work, which mostly involves managing the country's public spectrum, has more or less gone unnoticed in mainstream circles.

But if the Senate infrastructure bill successfully makes its way through the House and to President Biden's desk, all that could change. The bill allocates a whopping $42.5 billion for broadband deployment to states and local governments, all of which will be overseen by the NTIA administrator — a cash infusion that could turn this historically unsung position into perhaps the most important job in the country when it comes to closing the digital divide.

Just who President Biden will appoint to that role is still anyone's guess. While some names have been floated — including Alan Davidson, a former Googler who is currently the Mozilla Foundation's vice president of global policy — neither the Biden administration nor Davidson are talking.

Finding the right person for the job is "going to be a big challenge," said Blair Levin, a policy advisor to New Street Research, who previously oversaw the development of the FCC's National Broadband Plan. "There are not a lot of people anywhere who have been in charge of allocating that order of magnitude of money in the communications networking space."

That $42.5 billion in the Senate infrastructure package was the FCC's to lose, Levin said. "If you look at the bills that were precursors to the infrastructure bill a couple of years ago, they all were giving money to the FCC," Levin said. But the agency's management of the Rural Digital Opportunity Fund, a $20.4 billion program that also aims to connect the unconnected in rural areas, has been plagued with problems. As the agency itself described it recently, the FCC's reverse auction in that program led to "complaints that the program was poised to fund broadband to parking lots and well-served urban areas."

Now, under acting chair Jessica Rosenworcel, the FCC is working on cleaning up that program, asking providers who have already won funding to withdraw their applications "where significant questions of waste have been raised."

"The reputation of the FCC took a deep dive in the process of drafting the bill," Levin said. "The bill went from giving the FCC a lot of money and the NTIA some, to giving the NTIA all the money."

Technically, of course, the money goes to the states. But it's the NTIA administrator who will determine whether the broadband deployment plans put forth by the governors of those states are approved. "You're not developing a plan for the distribution of $42.5 billion. You're overseeing 58 different groups that are making decisions about how to award their money," Levin explained. "The challenge is to prevent the bad."

The Senate bill also gives the NTIA administrator a fair amount of discretion to interpret the law and issue waivers to states as needed. The bill as written requires states to prioritize delivering broadband service "to all unserved locations," before prioritizing "underserved" projects. That, some fear, could lead to some of the funding going unspent, because there are unserved locations throughout the country that are simply too costly or impractical to serve, but money could be prevented from going to "underserved" locations in the meantime. "There will not even be viable projects proposed to connect every unserved location," said Evan Marwell, CEO of EducationSuperHighway, a nonprofit that works on connecting students to broadband. "This is language that will have unintended consequences and has the potential to dramatically lower the impact of the bill."

But the NTIA administrator will be empowered to greenlight plans that run up against these issues. "This is where the NTIA appointment will matter a lot," said Ernesto Falcon, senior legislative counsel at the Electronic Frontier Foundation. There is some gray area in the law that could give states a way around those hurdles, Falcon said, but "it would require the executive branch to interpret the statute in a way that would allow those kinds of outcomes."

While the person who will lead this work is still unknown, the NTIA is already preparing for its expanded role in the broadband space, recently opening two new broadband-focused offices. The infrastructure package is still being negotiated in the House, but these offices will focus meanwhile on other broadband-focused grant programs, including the $288 million Broadband Infrastructure Program. Already, that program has elicited $2.5 billion in funding requests from states.

"With this new organizational structure, we are prepared to make significant progress in closing the digital divide through our broadband programs, bringing us closer to President Biden's goal of connecting all Americans to reliable, affordable high-speed Internet," current acting administrator Evelyn Remaley said in a statement announcing the NTIA's new offices. The NTIA didn't respond to Protocol's request for comment for this story.

Of course, $42.5 billion is a lot more than $288 million. The question now is whether the NTIA is ready for such a massive expansion of its duties, should the infrastructure bill make it through the House. "The easy answer is 'no,' because no one's ever prepared," Levin said. "Government doesn't work that way."

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