While it might be hyperbole to claim “Joe Biden is set to become the biggest venture capitalist in Silicon Valley,” as Kevin Dugan argued in Fortune, the +$1 trillion bipartisan infrastructure bill unveiled Sunday does promise a massive investment in technology, ranging from broadband to cybersecurity to transportation and beyond.
Indeed, the word “technology” appears 277 times in the draft, and ideas to advance the nation’s technological capacity are sprinkled throughout the 2,702 page document, amidst ideas on everything from how to make American roads more accommodating to monarch butterflies and other pollinators to an update to the Amtrak smoking policy that explicitly outlaws vaping on trains.
There it is. The bipartisan infrastructure bill pic.twitter.com/0vypuMIQFw— Leigh Ann Caldwell (@LACaldwellDC) August 1, 2021
Here is a roundup of coverage related to the technology elements in the bill:
Broadband and connectivity.
“Access to affordable, reliable, high-speed broadband is essential to full participation in modern life in the United States,” states the bill. Indeed, the proposal includes nearly $65 billion intended to connect people to the internet. As New York Times reporter Nicholas Fandos notes:
“The bulk of the money, $42 billion, would go directly toward funding service improvements in the form of grants, with at least $100 million reserved for all 50 states and another $100 million to be split between American territories. But the bill would also allocate $14 billion to convert an emergency pandemic-era program designed to give monthly subsidies to low-income Americans to pay for internet service into a permanent Affordable Connectivity Fund doling out $30 subsidies for service.
In what “stands to be a windfall for cable and fiber-optic internet companies,” much of the $42 billion may flow through to internet service providers such as AT&T and Charter Communications, say Drew Fitzgerald and David Harrison in the Wall Street Journal. At Techdirt, Karl Bode notes that “the proposal itself doesn’t really do much of anything about the core reason US broadband is so expensive: namely, regional telecom monopolization or the corruption that protects it.”
But the bill also incorporates a prior proposal from Senator Patty Murray, D-WA, that seeks to address “digital equity”. It seeks to set parameters for download and upload speeds and latency to “support real-time, interactive applications” (though Bode notes those are watered down from the “symmetrical 100Mbps” upload and download speeds many wanted). And, it seeks to address digital discrimination issues by ensuring access to “comparable speeds, capacities, latency, and other quality of service metrics in a given area, for comparable terms and conditions.”
It also includes language that suggests it will bring reform to the Universal Service Fund, something FCC commissioners from both parties as well as experts agree is overdue. Funded by subsidies channeled through the FCC, the Universal Service Fund puts about $8 billion a year toward addressing inequities in connectivity. In the long run, reform of the Fund could promise billions more to address the digital divide.
The bill is good news for state and local governments as well as utilities that need resources to put toward cybersecurity, says Lamar Johnson at the blog Meritallk. “Topping the bill’s cybersecurity-related spending is a $1 billion measure to fund cybersecurity grants for state, local, tribal, and territorial governments over four years.” The idea was previously advanced by Senator Maggie Hassan, D-NH.
The bill also promises $20 million a year for five years to a Cyber Response and Recovery Fund to be administered by the Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency (CISA). According to FedScoop’s Dave Nyczepir, CISA can “spend the funds on vulnerability assessments, technical incident mitigation, malware analysis, analytic support, threat detection and hunting, and network protections” an the money “may also be used for grants or cooperative agreements that update or replace hardware and software or else to contract IT or cyber personnel.” It provides a further $35 million to the agency for its operations, and also $21 million to kickstart the new national cyber director office before it is funded in next year’s budget.
Nyczepir notes that the “Department of Homeland Security Science and Technology Directorate would receive $157.5 million for non-cyber and cyber-related research and develop into critical infrastructure security and resilience, security testing of telecommunications equipment, industrial control systems and open-source software.”
It also creates a grant program for rural and municipal utilities to invest in cybersecurity, and various initiatives to secure electrical grids, water systems etc.
Part of that cybersecurity investment comes in the form of investment in transportation. The bill includes language supporting the “development of cybersecurity tools to detect and protect against cyber incidents related to transportation infrastructure” and creates a ‘cyber coordinator’ office that is “responsible for monitoring, alerting, and advising transportation authorities of cyber incidents.”
Transportation is one of the biggest blocks in the bill. “At least $274 billion of the bipartisan Senate infrastructure bill’s $550 billion in new spending would go toward transportation — a walloping one-time infusion of dollars in the nation’s roads, bridges, highways, ports, airports, rail and transit,” reports Jessica Wehrman at RollCall.
The bill portends a very different future for America’s trains, planes and automobiles- and indeed its marine transit- in the years ahead. It supports the study of impact on roads from self-driving vehicles, for instance, and research into the reduction of driver distraction to “minimize or eliminate” such phenomena as “driver disengagement,” “automation complacency by drivers;” and “foreseeable misuse of advanced driver-assist systems”. It funds “vehicle-to-pedestrian research efforts focused on incorporating bicyclists and other vulnerable road users into the safe deployment of connected vehicle systems” and the development of “advanced drunk and impaired driving prevention technology systems.”
It also provides the Secretary of Transportation with the funds to “establish a pilot program to conduct emerging technology research”, such as research that would “improve transportation infrastructure design in anticipation of increased usage of automated driving systems and advanced driver-assistance systems.”
And, it directs the government to figure out what to do with new techniques and data. A section on geomatic data says that the “Secretary shall develop guidance for the acceptance and use of information obtained from a non-Federal entity through geomatic techniques, including remote sensing and land surveying, cartography, geographic information systems, global navigation satellite systems, photogrammetry, or other remote means.”
“The measure agreed to over the weekend includes billions of dollars to better prepare the country for the effects of global warming, in what could be the largest investment in climate resilience in American history,” reports Christopher Flavelle in The New York Times. There is money for construction and other mitigations to address flooding and fires, money to move people, and even money to build new climate models. But, there is also potentially as much as $25 billion for new fossil fuel subsidies, reports The Intercept’s Alleen Brown.
On page 1,661, the bill requires the Executive Branch to produce a report for Congress that considers what digital solutions may exist to confront climate change and “assesses using digital tools and platforms as climate solutions, including— (1) artificial intelligence and machine learning; (2) blockchain technologies and distributed ledgers; (3) crowdsourcing platforms; (4) the Internet of Things; (5) distributed computing for the grid; and (6) software and systems. ” It also requires a list of opportunities to standardize data on regulatory disclosures related to climate.
The Electronic Frontier Foundation’s Rainey Reitman calls it a “disaster for digital privacy.” The crypto industry doesn’t like it. That’s because in seeking to raise taxes from digital currencies, the bill as it is currently written “would require cryptocurrency exchanges – defined as ‘any person who (for consideration) is responsible for regularly providing any service effectuating transfers of digital assets on behalf of another person’ to file an information return reporting the transaction,” reports Forbes contributor Guinevere Moore. But this one may not be much worth getting worked up over- it already appears destined for a rewrite.
At PBS Newshour, Nicol Turner Lee, senior fellow and director of the Center for Technology and Innovation at the Brookings Institution and correspondent Lisa Desjardins discussed the bill and whether it portends “generational shift in the form of including broadband as one of the critical infrastructures in this country”. On top of all of the investment in next generation transportation mechanisms, climate mitigation and the like, the biggest impact of the bill on people in the near term is likely to be that it brings more of them online.
Justin Hendrix is CEO and Editor of Tech Policy Press, a new nonprofit media venture concerned with the intersection of technology and democracy. Previously, he was Executive Director of NYC Media Lab. He spent over a decade at The Economist in roles including Vice President, Business Development & Innovation. He is an associate research scientist and adjunct professor at NYU Tandon School of Engineering. Opinions expressed here are his own.