From the White House to the boathouse, infrastructure has traditionally been narrowly defined as the roads, bridges, waterways, and other projects that allowed a post-industrial America to flourish.
In the latest sign that the technology revolution is moving in new directions, a six-line law with no name is helping to redefine the traditional notions of infrastructure – to include artificial intelligence, quantum computing, and semiconductors.
The legislation, quietly signed by President Biden last month, amended a 2015 law widely known as a highway bill, as befitted its name: the Fixing America’s Surface Transportation (FAST) Act.
A provision of the law provides for expedited Federal environmental and permitting review for covered infrastructure construction projects. Currently, those projects include “some of the largest, most complex, and novel infrastructure projects in the U.S.,” such as massive pipelines and multibillion-dollar renewable energy projects, according to a Federal steering council overseeing them.
Now, with the recent change in the law, the projects potentially qualifying for speeded-up review also encompass “semiconductors, artificial intelligence and machine learning, high-performance computing and advanced computer hardware and software, quantum information science and technology, data storage and data management, (and) cybersecurity.”
The amended law, titled only “An Act,” added those “computer-related projects.”
The legislation’s sponsor, Sen. Bill Hagerty, R-Tenn., says his intention is to boost national security, especially by fast-tracking permitting reviews of semiconductor plants expected to be built because of the Chips and Science Act. That law, also signed by Biden last month, provided funding incentives to establish such plants.
“I came to Washington to create jobs for the American people and bolster our national security to beat the Chinese Communist Party in the competition that will define the century,” Hagerty said after Biden signed the FAST Act law on Aug. 16. His office called the FAST Act legislation a “watershed bill” that “enacts regulatory reform that benefits private-sector companies building products that are essential to American national and economic security.”
A technology industry expert familiar with the legislation downplayed its effects, saying that Hagerty’s bill does not represent “a collective movement to recast what critical infrastructure looks like. I think that smartly, what you’re starting to see is more the ability to leverage technology as components of broader infrastructure projects. It doesn’t make the components themselves infrastructure.”
But the official summary of the bill by the respected Congressional Research Service calls AI, semiconductors and the other new technology projects now covered by the FAST Act “infrastructure projects.”
And infrastructure experts say that redefinition has the potential to fast-track a variety of tech projects beyond the scope of what has long been considered critical infrastructure.
Anthony Lamanna, a professor at the Del E. Webb School of Construction at Arizona State University, says infrastructure has traditionally been viewed “as the built environment for civilization – your water, your sewage, your electric.”
When he first read the FAST Act revision, Lamanna says, “I have a background in concrete and construction, so my gut was that the tech stuff doesn’t really fit.”
On further reflection, he says, “Maybe we start looking at this as the chip manufacturers are part of this future cyber infrastructure … I think somebody coming up with this stuff seems to be thinking far into the future. By fast-tracking these projects, we’re saying this is important to civilization in the future.”
Adie Tomer, a senior fellow and infrastructure expert at the Brookings Institution, likened the language in Hagerty’s bill to last year’s high-profile Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act, which he says makes it “explicit that the way infrastructure is construed is that broadband and digital technology is considered infrastructure.”
“Clearly, we are modernizing our definition of physical infrastructure to include digital tech,” says Tomer, who supports the change but says it also bears further scrutiny because data storage facilities and other projects potentially covered by Hagerty’s bill are privately owned.
“What should be the Federal relationship with the private owners of those kinds of facilities?” Tomer asked. “I don’t think it’s necessarily clear yet … It’s a critical area to watch.”
On the day Biden signed the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act last year, a White House blog post hailing the legislation focused almost exclusively on projects such as roads, bridges, and rail, along with broadband.
But a MeriTalk review of the legislation shows that the word digital appears 144 times, including a Federal requirement to adopt digital management systems on construction sites using “state-of-the-art automated and connected machinery and optimized routing software.”
The bill also requires the administration to report to Congress on “using digital tools and platforms as climate solutions,” including AI and blockchain technologies.
The move towards redefining infrastructure for the tech age echoes recent developments in Europe, where the European Union adopted tougher cybersecurity rules for network and information systems. The European Commission, which proposed the measures, defined them as “critical infrastructure protection” that would “make Europe fit for the digital age.”
In Washington, the FAST Act legislation was introduced in the Senate by Hagerty and several co-sponsors on Jan. 10 and passed the same day by unanimous consent. After a brief floor debate, it cleared the House in July by a vote of 303-89.
During the debate, Rep. Jim Costa, D-Calif., called the legislation “a commonsense bill” that “will build on the progress we are already making today with the CHIPS and Science Act.”
“The bill here simply adds key national security-related technologies, like semiconductors, to the types of projects that are eligible for an existing Federal program that improves the coordination between Federal departments on permitting,” Costa added.
That environmental review and permitting process, Hagerty has said, should be much speedier for the tech projects now covered by his bill, “dramatically (reducing) the time required to stand up new manufacturing capacity in strategically critical sectors, such as semiconductor fabrication.”
The Federal Permitting Improvement Steering Council oversees that expedited permitting process. When it added another industry to the eligible projects last year, it chose one decidedly more traditional than high tech: mining.
“Mining is an important infrastructure sector,” the body wrote.