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Get Ready to Navigate the Federal Broadband Funding Maze

A Federal Broadband Funding Primer - Part I

The COVID-19 pandemic laid bare the Digital Divide in our nation. Those who lacked Internet access or high-speed broadband struggled or had no ability to engage in remote work, distance learning, telehealth, apply online for government benefits or services, or access critical health information online. Like water and electricity, broadband is now an essential utility — not a luxury — in this digital age.

With the pandemic stretching into its third year, closing the Digital Divide has risen to the top of the national agenda.  As a broadband veteran who worked on the California State Broadband Plan in 2006 when a California PUC Commissioner, it is truly exciting to see our nation’s leaders committed to providing broadband for all, and backing that commitment with significant Federal funding.  The purpose of this two-part blog is to describe the Federal funding available, and how to approach drafting a State Broadband Plan.

Federal Funding Abounds

The good news:  Pandemic + Digital Divide = an unprecedented flood of billions of dollars devoted to closing the Digital Divide through two major Federal legislative acts passed during the pandemic.

The U.S. Department of Treasury Coronavirus Capital Projects Fund (“Capital Projects Fund”) provides $10 billion in funding for broadband, with $9.8 billion going to the 50 States, the District of Columbia (“DC”) and Puerto Rico; $100 million for U.S. Territories; and $100 million for Tribal Nations.

The Capital Projects Fund goal is to ensure rural America, Tribal nations, and low- and moderate- income communities have access to reliable and affordable broadband infrastructure necessary to access critical services such as work, education, and healthcare. Program funding can be used for broadband infrastructure, digital connectivity, technology programs, and a multi-purpose community facility program. A special focus is given to economically distressed areas and community empowerment. The deadline to request funding was December 27, 2021 for States, with a September 24, 2022 deadline to submit a grant plan. Tribal Governments have until June 1, 2022 to request funding (with no obligation to submit a separate grant or program plan).

The second, most recent, funding source is the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act (“Infrastructure Act”) passed and signed by the President in November 2021. The Infrastructure Act provides $65 billion for investment in broadband of which $48.2 billion will be administered by the U.S. Department of Commerce’s National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA). On May 13, 2022, NTIA released the Notice of Funding Opportunities (“NOFO”) for three broadband programs: The Broadband Equity Access and Deployment Program (BEAD), the Digital Equity Act Program (DEA), and the Middle Mile Program. States, U.S. Territories and Tribal nations are eligible for funding through BEAD and DEA, while eligible entities for Middle Mile Program funding are much broader including Internet Service Providers (ISPs), electric coops, nonprofits, and economic development authorities, among others.

Of these three NTIA programs, states should focus first on the $42.4 billion NTIA BEAD program. The BEAD program will provide grants of at least $100 million to every State, DC, and Puerto Rico (“State”), and $25 million for American Samoa, Guam, U.S. Virgin Islands, and the Commonwealth of Northern Marianas Islands (“Territories”) to provide access to affordable, reliable, and high-speed broadband, which is essential for full participation in modern life in the Information Age.

The BEAD program will first provide a grant to each state and territory to prepare a Five-Year Broadband Action Plan (“Broadband Plan”) if it does not have such a Plan now.  A Letter of Intent from the State, DC, or eligible territory is due July 18, 2022. Upon submission of the Letter of Intent, the eligible entity may request Initial Planning Funds of $5 million per state, and $1.25 million per territory. This application for Initial Planning Funds is due August 15, 2022.

If the State or Territory receives a grant for Initial Planning Funds, it must submit a Five-Year Action Plan to NTIA within 270 days of receipt of Initial Planning Funds. Once that Five- Year Action Plan is submitted to NTIA, then NTIA will provide an additional $95 million grant to each State, DC, and Puerto Rico and $23.75 million to each Territory to implement the Five- Year Action Plan.

“A goal without a plan is just a wish.”

Why Did NTIA Require a Broadband Plan?

In my view, requiring a thorough planning process—including stakeholder outreach, broadband mapping, and local and regional collaboration to develop a five-year plan—is essential.  After all, “A goal without a plan is just a wish.”

A solid and executable Broadband Plan is developed after:

Without such a roadmap, a Broadband Plan will have less of a chance of success.

Broadband Plans Should Address Infrastructure Access, Broadband Adoption, and Digital Equity

There are three dimensions of the Digital Divide that must be addressed:  Broadband Infrastructure Access, Broadband Adoption, and Digital Equity.

First, the plan must address Broadband Infrastructure Access—with goals, concrete actions, specific milestones, and deadlines to get broadband infrastructure in place at all locations with access for all consumers, small businesses, and anchor institutions. For example, “The State shall ensure 99 percent of its residents have reliable, resilient, and affordable broadband infrastructure by 2027, and 95 percent of the State’s residents will have adopted broadband at home.” Milestones could be set every two years to gauge how the state or territory is progressing toward achieving its goals, and course corrections can be made should results fall short of milestones.

Given the swift advance of technology in the telecommunications industry, I do not recommend speed and latency metrics being tied to one particular technology.  Federal law requires technology neutrality, and for good reason. Technology that may be cost effective for a dense urban area may not be right for a remote, rural, or very mountainous area.  Instead, set goals more broadly with speed and latency goals that evolve with the demands of modern applications. For example, “Broadband speeds and latencies, if applicable, provided by funded broadband infrastructure projects shall be adequate to access and use modern applications, without measurable differences between urban and rural areas.”

Second, a state or territory should next address Digital Adoption. Digital Adoption is the adoption of broadband service at home, adoption of Internet-enabled devices that meet a user’s needs, and digital readiness, digital literacy, and online skills. For example, “The State will provide Digital Adoption programs with the goal of 98 percent of all residents able to have broadband service at home, have Internet-enabled devices that meet their needs, and be digital ready, digital literate, and online skills capable by 2027.”

Salinas, California students sitting on the sidewalk doing schoolwork via WiFi outside the Taco Bell during the pandemic.

For Digital Adoption, the Broadband Plan should address affordability, because the cost of broadband services and devices to access them is often a major barrier for low- and moderate-income households, and disadvantaged populations such as seniors, veterans, people with disabilities, public housing residents, Tribal residents, and the unhoused. For example, an affordability goal might be, “Ensure that broadband service and Internet-enabled devices are available and affordable to low-income and other disadvantaged populations.” Milestones might include ensuring that grantees that are Internet service providers offer a low-cost broadband plan and the FCC’s Affordable Connectivity Program (which includes a $30 discount on retail broadband service plans and a $100 payment if the Internet service provider offers a computing device to the consumer at $10-$50/device).

Third, and equally important in closing the Digital Divide, is Digital Equity. Digital Equity is defined as the ultimate outcome of full digital inclusion, with action and investments to eliminate historical, systemic, and structural barriers that disadvantage individuals and communities. For example, “The State’s broadband goals must reach all communities, including Tribal communities, with a special focus and investment in communities that have suffered historical, systemic, and structural barriers that have disadvantaged individuals and their communities.”

I have seen first-hand that the process of drafting a Broadband Plan provides an important educational “A-ha” moment for stakeholders all over the state

I have seen first-hand that the process of drafting a Broadband Plan provides an important educational “A-ha” moment for stakeholders all over the state – state and local leaders, state utility agencies, school districts, libraries, business leaders, community nonprofit organizations, Internet service providers (ISPs), research and education networks, and middle mile providers.  Coming together to discuss broadband and all its benefits—economic development, broadband is green, educational/health —fosters positive conversations and productive collaboration.  Often, the key issues discussed are priorities for broadband infrastructure projects (middle mile and last mile), the accuracy of the state’s broadband map, how to best prioritize unserved and underserved areas particularly to disadvantaged communities, how to bring public access to computers to those lacking access or housing, how to address past digital inequities, and how to best reach broadband adoption goals to ensure unconnected persons have home access.

With this as a background, in my next blog, I cover key steps in developing a State Broadband Plan by a State, District or Territory.

CEO & Principal at R36 Solutions

Former Commissioner, Federal Communications Commission and California Public Utilities Commission


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