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Tips to Develop a Grand State Broadband Plan

A Federal Broadband Funding Primer - Part II

The NTIA Notice of Funding Opportunity for the Broadband Equity, Access and Deployment (BEAD) and Digital Equity Programs require a Five Year State Broadband Action Plan in order to tap $100 million of federal Infrastructure Act funding.  (Certain US Territories are also eligible for lower amounts.)  Many States already have stood up a State Broadband Office; others have not.  For those who have not, I offer some tips from a state that began its Digital Divide journey back in 2006 when I was a California PUC Commissioner.

First, a state needs to designate or form a State Broadband Office. Some states tap the communications staff of the public utility commission, the State CIO or CTO’s office, a business development agency, or other state office.  Staff needs to be hired or transferred, employees trained, and support services obtained from state offices or departments, including fiscal and contracting services.  Other key state agencies include your transportation agency, general services agency, and agency in charge of telecommunications issues.

Essential First Steps to Developing a State Broadband Plan

Form a State Broadband Office

Create a State-wide Broadband Council

Hold in-person stakeholder listening sessions

Complete a Broadband Map for your state

Second, I recommend that a state also create a Statewide Broadband Council composed of a senior representative of every state agency to help facilitate broadband projects. For example, your transportation agency can facilitate broadband permitting for rights-of-ways including environmental review.  It can establish a “Dig Once, Dig Smart” policy that allows ISPs and middle mile providers to place conduit and fiber alongside an open state roadway to reduce costs. Your general services agency might create a database of state-owned towers, buildings, poles, or other facilities on which ISPs may place broadband facilities to bring service faster.  The department of education can plan and budget to provide free or low-cost computing devices to students who lack them for educational purposes.  The state public utilities commission can assist with broadband mapping, outreach to state Internet Service Providers, and develop a matching state broadband infrastructure grant to pair with Federal grants, some of which require matching funds.

Third, the NTIA NOFO’s require robust and extensive in-person listening sessions and prioritizing stakeholder engagement are essential activities. The State or Territory Broadband Office should plan to travel across the state to hold meetings from local and state leaders, K-12 and higher education leaders, librarians, business leaders, consumer groups, representatives of minority, disability, seniors, and other historically disadvantaged communities, Internet service providers,  Tribal leaders, and individuals. Direct interaction with these stakeholders is essential—to determine their broadband and device needs, gather data on where broadband infrastructure is lacking or slow, and discuss community-related issues such as broadband adoption programs, public access to computers, and digital equity. Given the clear focus and intent of Federal broadband programs—to close the Digital Divide—a key area for emphasis during this consultation process will be to gather as much data and information as possible to better understand which areas are unconnected and whether or not there are existing Digital Adoption and Digital Equity programs already in place.

Fourth, broadband mapping is a “must do” activity for any State Broadband Plan worth its salt. The Federal program will provide Internet speed benchmarks against which you can determine if an area is “unserved” (e.g., speeds under 25 Mbps. download and 3 Mbps. upload) and “underserved” (e.g., speeds under 100 Mbps. download and 20 Mbps. upload). This is important because current FCC broadband maps overstate broadband coverage.  Under prior FCC rules, an Internet Service Provider (ISP) was allowed to claim that broadband coverage existed if the ISP either did or believed that it could feasibly provide broadband service to a particular area. Census blocks were the geographic coverage area used for such FCC coverage reporting.  This resulted in FCC reports stating that an entire census block was covered by broadband even if only a single household located within that census block was served by an ISP. This flawed process resulted in FCC broadband maps that greatly overstated coverage, and ultimately led to many unserved or underserved locations being denied Federal (and sometimes state) infrastructure grants because those area were considered “served.”

Broadband mapping is a “must do” activity for any State Broadband Plan worth its salt.

In March 2020, Congress passed the Broadband DATA Act, which requires the FCC to overhaul its methods of collecting broadband availability data and adopt new rules for biannual collection and dissemination of granular data on broadband availability and quality of service. The FCC is required to establish the Broadband Serviceable Location Fabric (“Fabric”) which is a common dataset of all U.S. locations where fixed broadband Internet service could be installed. Also, mobile wireless service providers are required to report their wireless broadband service availability, using a standard propagation model. This Fabric is the foundation upon which all data relating to the availability of fixed broadband Internet service shall be reported. FCC Chairwoman Rosenworcel announced the Fabric will be ready by Fall 2022. GIS Fabric map-based coverage reporting is to commence in May 2022, and existing ISPs must report their broadband coverage by September 2022 using the same Form 477 process that was used before.

The key difference is that the FCC will now establish processes (1) to verify the accuracy of data reported by broadband providers, (2) to collect verified availability data from other Federal agencies, states, local and Tribal governments, and other third parties, and (3) for a “user friendly” challenge process through which consumers, states, local and Tribal entities, and others may submit coverage data to the FCC. Stakeholders will be able to use data such as “drive test” or “crowd sourced” data to make the broadband map for its state or territory more accurate. Once the map is populated with accurate information on where broadband infrastructure is lacking, the state or territory can prioritize unserved areas with the greatest populations first, followed by underserved areas, until every area has state-of-the-art infrastructure that provides broadband meeting Federal service level standards.

Two of the main reasons rural and remote communities are not served by broadband is the distance of the community to the nearest Internet point of presence (POP), and the lack of middle mile (and backhaul for wireless ISPs) to get the traffic hauled to an Internet POP.  As part of a state’s Broadband Plan, it is important to give attention to funding the necessary middle mile facilities, backhaul, and even putting in new Internet POPs in rural or remote areas that lack them. It is important to have the middle mile, research and educational networks, and Internet POP providers for your state involved in early discussions with ISPs. Participation from every part of the broadband ecosystem should be encouraged.

What to Include in a State Broadband Plan?

The plan should set ambitious goals, objectives, and related milestone achievement dates for the Broadband Plan’s main goals:

The Plan’s broadband goals should be linked to other State or Territory objectives. These objectives may include economic development; clean energy (broadband can reduce vehicle emissions by enabling telework instead of driving to a workplace); tele-education and distance learning; expansion of health care using telehealth applications for remote, rural or Tribal communities; development of agriculture technology initiatives to assist the farming sector; and public safety and resiliency objectives (e.g., wildfire, hurricane or tornado monitoring systems, emergency response, weather alert systems, etc.). This helps other agencies understand why broadband is an essential service.

The Plan should comply with all Federal program requirements in the Notice of Funding Opportunity (NOFO). NTIA’s BEAD and the U.S. Treasury Capital Projects fund will have various requirements that must be met in the State Broadband Plan planning process. The NOFO for each program will list in detail what is required in the State Broadband Plan. For example, the Broadband Plan will be required to reflect continuing local and regional collaboration, input obtained through a documented outreach effort, and results from a broadband mapping exercise.

The Plan should also meet key Federal goals stated in the NOFO. For example, the Capital Projects fund requires an initial priority of bringing broadband infrastructure to unserved and underserved areas, but allows other households, small businesses, and community anchor institutions to be served along the way to make the project economical. This program also allows middle mile facilities to be included in a last mile project, if necessary for the infrastructure to reach the unserved and underserved areas. Other Federal rules may require that new middle mile facilities comply with Federal nondiscriminatory interconnection and open access requirements.

Lastly, the State Broadband Plan should include a schedule for grant applications (including eligibility, speeds, latencies), application due dates, and project completion deadlines that meet deadlines for encumbering the Federal funding.

Broadband Adoption and Digital Equity Must Be Included in the State Broadband Plan

A State Broadband Plan should also address establishing programs to meet its broadband adoption goals.  Broadband adoption programs include encouraging unconnected residents to adopt broadband and instructing them on how to subscribe to broadband at home, helping the consumer establish eligibility for low-income or affordable service plans, assisting in sourcing a low-cost Internet device, and basic computer training (e.g., how to turn the computer on, create a mailbox for sending and receiving emails, and perform online searches). Typically, broadband adoption program grants are made to nonprofit organizations experienced in technology programs, schools, and libraries. Often disadvantaged consumers do not trust traditional ISPs or government low-income programs. In these cases, outreach by trusted local community groups is best to overcome that distrust.

Metrics for broadband adoption programs should target actual broadband adoptions by formerly unconnected persons at their homes, and the number of Internet-enabled devices provided.  Public computer access sites should measure how many people use the facilities. To aid in adoption, public access sites should assist in referring unconnected persons to digital literacy programs.

Affordability of service is a barrier to broadband adoption for low-income households. The Broadband Plan should address this challenge head on.  The plan could require infrastructure grantees to offer an affordable broadband service plan that costs $20 or less for a low-income household. The current FCC Affordable Connectivity Program (ACP), which provides eligible households with a $30 discount on a retail broadband plan, allows an ISP to charge $30-$50/month for a robust broadband plan that will enable an entire family to engage in modern application uses, such as telework, distance learning, and telehealth. The state or territory should ensure ISPs and broadband stakeholders inform the eligible population about the FCC’s ACP discount program.

“Plan your work and work your plan.”

Finally, the Broadband Plan should address the Device Divide—a household’s lack of a computing device because they cannot afford a laptop or computer. Many low-income households only have access to the Internet through a wireless device, such as a smart phone or tablet. One cannot write a term paper or perform research on a small smart phone screen. Initiatives to close the Device Divide could include establishing computer refurbishing centers in communities that need them. Large corporations donate used computers to the center, and, after preparing computers for reuse, the center provides them to communities who need them at low cost. The centers can also serve as training grounds for the community’s youth, where they can acquire computer support and IT skills which will help them obtain jobs in the IT industry or serve as digital ambassadors to their home community.

The Broadband Office should encourage ISPs to offer discounted computing devices. In addition, ISPs should be encouraged to take advantage of receiving $100/computing device through the FCC’s ACP program, if the ISP provides a computing device to a household and charges the household $10-$50 per device.  The department of education in the state or territory should ensure K-12 school children have access to a computing device, and broadband at the school or in school buses equipped with WiFi service. Those in the most disadvantaged communities should have priority on available resources and devices, as a matter of digital equity.

Digital equity issues are required to be treated with a sharp focus.  All efforts should be written down to show that the State engaged in ensuring broadband benefits flow first to unserved, underserved areas and disadvantaged communities.  The Justice40 requirement derives from a President Biden Executive Order require 40% of the Infrastructure Act funds to assist traditionally disadvantaged communities, which is broadly defined.  Justice40 is a whole-of-government effort to ensure that Federal agencies work with states and local communities to make good on President Biden’s promise to deliver at least 40 percent of the overall benefits from Federal investments in climate and clean energy to disadvantaged communities.

Bottom line — a good State Broadband Plan should address broadband infrastructure, broadband adoption, and digital equity. It should be crafted after significant consultation with and input from the people, small businesses, enterprises, Internet Service Providers, and community anchor institutions in your state.  The Plan should be ambitious, forward-looking, and seek the most advanced infrastructure possible. The Plan should be technology neutral to take advantage of rapid advances in computing and telecommunications technology.  Best of luck as you develop a Broadband Action Plan.

CEO & Principal at R36 Solutions

Former Commissioner, Federal Communications Commission and California Public Utilities Commission


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