As we increasingly recognize the necessity of broadband access in this digital age, the federal government has provided financial support to rural states to bring high-speed access to the remaining un- and under-served areas. The latest round of federal money, the Broadband Equity, Access, and Deployment (BEAD) program, has been touted as what’s needed to finally get the job done and provide broadband access for everyone.
That’s an objective we all support. However, as is the case with so many federal programs, BEAD comes with some apparent strings attached that are more in line with promoting progressive social policy than they are in maximizing an effective and efficient deployment of these taxpayer dollars.
The BEAD program is slated to spend $42.5 billion over the next few years. Of that amount, Montana’s share is approximately $629 million. Those are massive numbers, and come on top of previous rounds of federal infrastructure money awarded to states for broadband buildout during the pandemic. We owe it to the taxpayers to ensure that this money is spent as efficiently as possible.
However, an emphasis on efficiency and responsibility are not what we’re seeing in the suggested BEAD guidelines issued by the Biden administration.
For example, the federal guidance includes a long list of labor standards and protections that the state could decide to require as binding legal commitments, such as prevailing wage, local hire provisions, and use of labor peace agreements. These workforce requirements are included as a payoff to the large labor unions, but they could be very difficult for small, rural broadband providers to meet.
Fortunately, buried in the fine print of the federal guidance is clarification that a state could decide not to make these labor standards mandatory.
A second problem with the guidance from the Biden administration is a strong suggestion to mandate providers set a price ceiling for low-cost plans. This suggestion contradicts separate federal requirements that prohibit rate regulation for broadband. Most Montana broadband providers already offer low-cost plans that include flexibility in their pricing without a mandated price ceiling.
But again, buried in the fine print of the federal guidance is clarification that a price ceiling is a suggestion, not a hard-and-fast requirement for states. We should encourage providers to innovate and compete with each other to attract customers – not mandate a one-size-fits-all regulation for all providers.
Finally, the Biden Administration’s guidelines encourage the use of government-owned networks (GONs) to provide broadband access in some areas. This could be a nightmare scenario for Montana consumers forced to rely on the government to provide internet access. We have plenty of companies in the market eager to serve customers —GONs have no place in Montana and should not be included in our plans.
Let us not lose sight of the end goal — reliable, affordable broadband access for all Montanans, completed in an efficient and responsible manner that respects the taxpayers. The focus should be getting people internet — not on providing political handouts to labor unions and progressive special interest groups.
I urge Montana’s Communications Advisory Committee to resist the federal overreach included in the guidance documents and come up with a plan that best fits the needs of Montana.
Katie Zolnikov is a Republican state representative from Billings.
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