As part of the bipartisan infrastructure bill signed into law last year, Commerce Secretary Gina Raimondo is tasked with overseeing the Federal government’s $65 billion investment in broadband deployment to unserved and underserved areas across the country.
During a Senate Committee on Appropriations Subcommittee on Commerce, Justice, Science, and Related Agencies hearing on Tuesday Sec. Raimondo stressed that her office is addressing the needs of each state and tribal nation individually.
“We do not have a one size fits all approach, because I do not believe that would be successful,” she testified. Despite acknowledging that “this will not be easy, this is detail-oriented.” She remained optimistic, saying “We will get this done and fundamentally close the digital divide in America.”
During the hearing, she faced a barrage of questions, including concerns over map accuracy, last mile and middle mile deployment issues, and how Commerce’s National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA) will coordinate with states and other agencies during the funding rollout.
Subcommittee Chair Jeanne Shaheen, D-N.H., addressed the importance of broadband map accuracy. Broadband mapping, which is under the purview of the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), has long been plagued with concerns over accuracy. Sen. Shaheen stressed that the funding cannot be deployed until there are accurate maps.
“Maps are vital,” Sec. Raimondo said. Acknowledging that the goal of the bipartisan infrastructure bill is to prioritize the unserved before the underserved, she said, “Shame on me if at the end of this there is anyone left unserved.”
Sec. Raimondo said her office is in constant communication with the FCC and said, “They represent that probably this summer they will have the maps. I do have confidence they will be more accurate than they have been in the past.” She explained that in the past, the maps were based on census tract, but the new maps will be down to the individual household and that Commerce is incorporating its census data into the maps as well.
Sen. Shaheen pushed Sec. Raimondo to address concerns over accuracy, specifically how her department will handle the challenge process.
Raimondo reinforced that the maps are the FCC’s purview and that Commerce’s job starts with taking the maps and acting on the data. That said, she acknowledged the challenge process is important. Adding, “I’ve told my team, yes we have to go fast, but we really have to get it right.”
Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, also raised concerns over mapping accuracy but tied it back to her state’s concerns over middle mile deployment. Saying that everyone is rightly concerned about making sure Commerce is getting funding out the door in a timely fashion, but that there has to be accurate mapping to ensure the Federal government is serving the unserved before the underserved.
Sec. Raimondo stressed that Alaska’s middle mile needs are unique and that the NTIA will be sensitive to each state’s individual needs.
Pivoting to coordination concerns, Sen. Shaheen asked how the NTIA will handle coordination not only with states but between agencies that also have funding for broadband deployment.
Sec. Raimondo the department’s goal is to have NTIA act as a “one-stop shop” when it comes to coordination and funding. “We cannot be asking governors and mayors and tribal leaders to deal with the alphabet soup of government, we have to make it easy,” she said. To ease the process, the department plans to have a single point person in charge of each state.
Building on coordination concerns, Sen. Jerry Moran, R-Kan., asked how NTIA will coordinate with states that have small, or even non-existent, broadband offices. Specifically asking how NTIA will provide technical assistance to states that need it.
According to Sec. Raimondo, only 36 states have broadband offices, and she added that they vary in size. That said, she stressed that NTIA has a long history of working with these states and offices and understanding who needs more technical assistance.
She added that the NTIA is aiming towards a May 16 notice of funding opportunity, after that a state has to give NTIA a notice of intent that they want to participate. After states give notice, Sec. Raimondo said the Commerce Department will begin administering a $5 million grant for the planning process and that will then begin heavy technical assistance from NTIA to states that need it.