Legislation recently introduced in the Senate aims to create a Federal grant system to help fund the construction of new broadband networks in parts of the country that either don’t have much broadband service currently available or that have service speeds of less than 100 megabits per second (Mbps) upload and 20 Mbps download.

The new broadband infrastructure would be built over existing electric grid infrastructure, and grant recipients would be obliged to use the funding to “improve cybersecurity and smart grid technology on their electrical grid infrastructure,” along with providing new “middle-mile” broadband network backbones.

The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) currently defines broadband service as 25mbps upload/3 Mbps download, but last month FCC Chairwoman Jessica Rosenworcel launched a notice of inquiry exploring whether to boost that definition to 100mbps/20mbps.

The GRID Broadband Act was introduced by Sens. Maria Cantwell, D-Wash., chair of the Senate Commerce, Science, and Transportation Committee, and Shelley Moore Capito, R-W.Va., ranking member of the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee.

The grants envisioned by the bill would be provided through the Commerce Department’s National Telecommunications and Information Administration.

The text of the bill does not specify funding amounts or sources for the proposed grant program. It does say, however, that many of the grants are envisioned as matching private sector funding on a 50/50 basis, with some grants at an 80/20 basis for Tribal organizations and regulated, not-for-profit electric utilities.

“The goal of this bipartisan initiative is to help provide affordable high-speed Internet options to the 120 million American households that lack connectivity and enhance the resiliency, diversity, and security of America’s electrical grid,” the senators’ offices said. The grant program, they said, “will create thousands of skilled jobs, while enhancing the capacity and resilience of our critical networks, reducing costs to providers and consumers, and setting the stage for sustained long-term economic growth.”

“In order to accomplish our goal of bringing reliable, high-speed internet access to every West Virginia community, we need to continue bringing solutions to the table,” commented Sen. Capito. “The GRID Broadband Act would utilize our nation’s electric grid system to help build out and deploy broadband, especially in some of the most rural areas of West Virginia with little to no service.”

“Building out fiber along our nation’s existing grid will provide the communications capacity needed to modernize our energy system, make our grid more cyber secure, and bring affordable high-speed internet to tens of millions of hard-to-reach households,” said Sen. Cantwell.

“It’s a triple win solution for consumers because it leverages existing rights-of-way and private sector ingenuity and investment to deliver cleaner electricity, stronger cybersecurity, and more accessible broadband services,” said the senator, who likened the legislation to the Rural Electrification Act enacted in 1936 that provided Federal loans to create electrical distribution systems in rural areas of the U.S.

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John Curran
John Curran
John Curran is MeriTalk SLG's Managing Editor covering the intersection of government and technology.