The little-known NTIA takes on a massive Internet connectivity job

Armed with about $49 billion that Congress appropriated in 2021, a normally overlooked Commerce Department agency is tackling the ambitious goal of giving all Americans access to high-speed Internet.

At a recent congressional hearing, Rep. Frank Pallone Jr. of New Jersey, the ranking Democrat on the House Energy and Commerce Committee, said the National Telecommunications and Information Administration “may not be a household name, (but) the agency has done an immense amount of work over the past two years to help connect all Americans to high-speed, reliable and affordable broadband.”

However, NTIA may have an uphill battle as Congress adjusts funding for affordable connectivity programs elsewhere and looks to cut the budget overall.

NTIA, created 46 years ago during the Carter administration, is now charged with building 21st-century digital connectivity that some say parallels the creation of America’s interstate highway system. The agency also plays a vital role in freeing up wireless spectrum for new innovations and has published a template for auditing artificial intelligence systems.

Its position within the Commerce Department gives NTIA the unique disposition to “promote both commercial interests and federal (government) interests,” Grace Abuhamad, the agency’s chief of staff, said in an interview.

In the 2021 infrastructure bill, Congress appropriated $65 billion to expand high-speed Internet access nationwide and gave NTIA about $49 billion of that amount, a huge amount considering the agency’s relatively small budget line of $59 million. Of the $65 billion, the Federal Communications Commission got $14.2 billion to help provide affordable Internet access and the Department of Agriculture received $2 billion to expand Internet in rural areas.

So far, NTIA has awarded $100 million to each state, as well as a combined $100 million to U.S. territories, to develop and launch multi-tiered five-year plans to serve those without high-speed Internet or any connection. The massive effort begins with assessments of the greatest needs.

Once the agency approves those plans, each state has a funding level set, ranging from $3.3 billion for Texas to $27 million for the U.S. Virgin Islands.

Meanwhile, NTIA is working to implement last year’s National Spectrum Strategy that calls for releasing unused wireless spectrum for auction to commercial providers, who could use the airwaves for wireless Internet, as well as satellite communications and drones.

The NTIA has had “a reputation for punching above its weight,” said Evelyn Remaley, the agency’s former acting administrator and now a partner at the law firm Wilkinson Barker Knauer LLP. With a “relatively small budget, the agency is focused and gets things done,” Remaley said in an interview.

The agency wants more funding as it implements its plans. President Joe Biden requested an allocation of $67 million for fiscal year 2025, about 13 percent more than the $59 million Congress allocated to NTIA for fiscal year 2024.

Global connections

In addition to building infrastructure in the United States, the agency has also been strengthening ties with global telecommunications bodies, including the U.N.’s International Telecommunication Union agency, which is responsible for setting global standards, Abuhamad said.

“We have been at the center of building international connections (and) our relationship with the ITU and other international organizations, coordinating with other countries on their technology and their communication uses and how we build it together,” Abuhamad said.

The NTIA says it helped Doreen Bogdan-Martin get elected in 2022 as the ITU’s first secretary-general. Bogdan-Martin, an American, succeeded China’s Houlin Zhao, who had led the international body for seven years starting in 2015. During that tenure, Trump administration officials vigorously protested China’s forays into 5G telecommunications networks. fearing that the country would undermine the technological leadership and influence of the United States. standards to benefit Beijing.

Given his responsibilities in domestic and international affairs, the head of the NTIA, currently staffed by Under Secretary of Commerce Alan Davidson, needs to be promoted, Remaley said. The pending legislation would accomplish that, giving the agency’s administrator a more prominent role as undersecretary of Commerce.

Although the NTIAAlthough the work has bipartisan support in Congress, Republican lawmakers have expressed concern that some states may be using broadband expansion funds to resurrect Obama-era “net neutrality” principles.

Congress “imposed strict requirements on the NTIA, such as ensuring this funding reaches universal connectivity and prohibiting rate regulation,” Ohio Republican Rep. Bob Latta, who chairs the Energy Communications and Technology Subcommittee, said at a recent hearing. and Commerce of the House of Representatives, referring to broadband funding. “However, I am concerned that hidden in some of these state plans are calls for more federal funding, attempts to deviate from the principles of technology neutrality required by law, and blatant efforts by states to engage in rate regulation.” of broadband service.

Latta said the NTIA should ensure that states do not use the funds to achieve net neutrality goals, that is, the principles that Internet service providers should treat all users equally, offering the same rates regardless. of use. The Trump administration repealed those rules.

Meanwhile, funding for high-speed Internet access has come under threat elsewhere in the government.

The fiscal 2024 spending bills excluded $6 billion that the Biden administration had sought for the Federal Communications Commission’s Affordable Connectivity Program, which provided discounts and subsidies to up to 23 million low-income households for access to Internet.

On Tuesday, the White House pressured Congress to extend the program. The FCC sent a letter to Washington Democratic Sen. Maria Cantwell, chairwoman of the Senate Commerce Committee, that included a district-by-district breakdown of households receiving assistance through the program. A senior administration official told reporters that “it’s time for Republicans in Congress to step up and stop their constituents’ Internet costs from rising.”

Sen. Peter Welch, D-Vermont, who proposed legislation to provide the money, is looking at multiple ways to fund the program, according to Aaron White, a spokesman for the lawmaker. The Senate measure has the support of two Republicans and a companion measure in the House has 215 cosponsors, including 21 Republicans.

When allocating federal funds, the NTIA requires states to offer low-cost Internet services as a condition of accepting grants, Abuhamad said. But for some families, paying any price for Internet access may be beyond their means.

“It would be essential for Congress to continue funding the program,” he said.

There is a danger that the outcome of the presidential and congressional elections could undermine support for the NTIA effort, said Nicol Turner Lee, director of the Center for Technology Innovation at the Brookings Institution.

“Broadband deployment and affordability programs must go hand in hand,” Turner Lee said in an interview. “If the country is to develop next-generation infrastructure that not only supports essential services but also emerging technologies like AI, (NTIA’s) work is vitally important right now.

“With the upcoming elections and money slowly trickling into the states, time will determine whether NTIA’s efforts become captivated by partisanship,” Turner Lee said.

Sean Michael Newhouse contributed to this report.

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