Skip to content

Little-known NTIA takes on massive job of internet connectivity

Agency has reputation for ‘punching above its weight,’ former administrator says

Rep. Frank Pallone, D-N.J., praised the NTIA for an "immense amount of work" on internet connectivity.
Rep. Frank Pallone, D-N.J., praised the NTIA for an "immense amount of work" on internet connectivity. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call file photo)

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

At a recent congressional hearing, Rep. Frank Pallone Jr. of New Jersey, the top 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 in the last two years to help connect all Americans to high-speed, reliable and affordable broadband.”

The NTIA may have an uphill battle, however, as Congress tightens funding for affordable connectivity programs elsewhere and looks to trim the budget overall.

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

Its position within the Commerce Department gives the NTIA the unique disposition of “advancing both commercial interests as well as the federal [government’s] interest,” Grace Abuhamad, chief of staff at the agency, said in an interview. 

Congress in the 2021 infrastructure law appropriated $65 billion to expand high-speed internet access across the country and gave the NTIA about $49 billion of that — a massive 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 Agriculture Department received $2 billion to extend the internet in rural areas.

So far, the NTIA has awarded $100 million to each state, as well as $100 million combined for U.S. territories, to develop and launch multi-level five-year plans to serve those who lack high-speed internet or any connection at all. The massive effort starts with assessments of the greatest needs.

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

Meanwhile, the NTIA is working to implement the National Spectrum Strategy from last year that calls for freeing up unused wireless spectrum for auction to commercial providers, who could utilize the airwaves for wireless internet as well for drone and satellite communication. 

The NTIA has had “a reputation for punching above its weight,” said Evelyn Remaley, a former acting administrator at the agency who is 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 rolls out its plans. President Joe Biden requested an appropriation of $67 million for fiscal 2025, about 13 percent higher than the $59 million that Congress appropriated for NTIA for fiscal 2024.

Worldwide connections

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

“We’ve 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 that together,” Abuhamad said. 

The NTIA says it helped Doreen Bogdan-Martin get elected in 2022 as ITU’s first female secretary general. Bogdan-Martin, an American, succeeded China’s Houlin Zhao, who had led the international body for seven years from 2015. During that tenure, Trump administration officials vigorously protested China’s inroads into 5G telecom networks for fear the country would undermine U.S. tech leadership and influence standards to Beijing’s advantage.

Given its responsibilities in domestic and international affairs, the head of NTIA, currently staffed by Assistant Secretary of Commerce Alan Davidson, needs to be elevated, Remaley said. Pending legislation would accomplish that, giving the agency administrator a more prominent role as an undersecretary of Commerce.

Although the NTIAs work has bipartisan support in Congress, Republican lawmakers have raised concerns that some states could be using the broadband expansion funds to resurrect Obama-era “net neutrality” principles.

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

Latta said the NTIA should ensure that states aren’t using the funds to achieve net neutrality goals, meaning principles that internet service providers must treat all users equally, offering the same rates irrespective of usage. The Trump administration repealed those rules. 

Meanwhile, funds for high-speed internet access have been threatened elsewhere within the government.

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

On Tuesday, the White House pressed Congress to extend the program. The FCC sent a letter to Washington Democratic Sen. Maria Cantwell, chair of the Senate Commerce Committee, including a congressional district-by-district breakdown of households getting assistance through the program. A senior administration official told reporters that “it is past time for congressional Republicans to step up and prevent their constituents’ internet costs from increasing.”

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

As it allocates 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,” she said. 

There’s a danger that the outcome of the congressional and presidential elections could undermine support for the NTIA’s 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 going to develop a state-of-the-art infrastructure that not only supports the essential services but also emerging technologies like AI, [the NTIA’s] work is critically important right now.

“With a forthcoming election and money slowly trickling out to states, time will determine if the NTIA’s efforts become enthralled in partisanship,” Turner Lee said. 

Sean Michael Newhouse contributed to this report.

Recent Stories

Total eclipse of the Hart (and Russell buildings) — Congressional Hits and Misses

House plans to send Mayorkas impeachment articles to Senate on Tuesday

Harris sticks with Agriculture spending, Amodei likely to head DHS panel

Editor’s Note: What passes for normal in Congress

House approves surveillance authority reauthorization bill

White House rattles its saber with warnings to Iran, China about attacking US allies