Commerce Secretary Says End of Digital Divide “Within Our Grasp”

Randy Sukow


Aerial view of mobile phone cell tower over forested rural area

USTelecom invited Commerce Secretary Gina Raimondo on a webcast this afternoon to cheerlead for $40 billion in federal broadband network construction programs that are part of a multitrillion-dollar series of legislation now under debate in Congress. House and Senate members from both sides of the aisle oppose various elements of the bills. Ultimate passage remains in doubt.

Screenshot from the webcast with Commerce Secretary Gina Gaimondo, led by Kathy Grillo of Verizon.

“The [$550 billion] infrastructure bill right now before the House will close the digital divide and it’s time to act on that,” Raimondo said during an online discussion with Kathy Grillo, Verizon’s senior VP, Public Policy and Government Affairs (pictured). “It is within our grasp.”

“We stand at a pivotal moment in Washington. One that we can’t let slip away,” said USTelecom President and CEO Jonathan Spalter, at the beginning of the association’s 2021 Broadband Investment Forum. “Forty billion dollars is a serious chunk of change, but for some perspective, it’s also half of what America’s communications providers invest in communications networks every single year to connect communities, upgrade infrastructure, accelerate speeds and drive innovation across our economy and our lives.”

Both Raimondo and Spalter emphasized the need for industry to work with government at all levels. Many new broadband spending programs, including those administered by the Commerce Department’s National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA), involve distribution through state and local governments.

“The reason we’re administering that was is to enable for some flexibility,” she said, noting that the connectivity challenges differ in each rural community. Her advice to both governments and industry was to “start planning now and stay in extremely close contact with our team at NTIA. We have to work in partnership and in detail if we’re going to get this right.”

She noted that with passage of the infrastructure bill NTIA would be administrating significantly more aid for broadband services than it has in the past and it will take some effort to work through administrative details. NTIA also is working with the FCC to create more detailed maps to allow government and industry make better broadband decisions … a task NTIA staff is already finding to be challenging.

“The data is critical because we don’t want to spend our money on overbuilding,” Raimondo said. She said that NTIA’s chief focus as it works with the FCC on maps will be to avoid duplication.

Raimondo said that supporting 5G wireless network expansion in rural areas will also be a priority. “We have to use and leverage every kind of connectivity available … [5G] will accelerate smart cities, smart electric grid and smart transportation. It is a key piece of the puzzle,” she said.

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