A recently released playbook offers states a handy guide to navigating the broadband funding opportunities afforded through the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act (IIJA).
The Biden administration's nearly $2 trillion infrastructure legislation reserves $65 billion for broadband. The largest piece of that pie is the $42.45 billion Broadband Equity, Access, and Deployment (BEAD) program, overseen by the NTIA, which will make grants available to states to fund broadband deployment and adoption in unserved and underserved areas.
Other new grants funded through the law include a $2.75 billion Digital Equity Program and a $1 billion middle-mile program.
The opportunity for states is massive. As is the workload involved in preparing and applying for grants, distributing funds to sub-grantees – and keeping up with federal reporting requirements.
Some states are better prepared than others. According to the Pew Charitable Trusts, most US states have set up a broadband task force, agency or fund; but roughly half have established broadband offices.
Ready or not, all states and territories have to check a lot of boxes in order to apply for and implement funding.
Now, a new Broadband Infrastructure Playbook, released by the Fiber Broadband Association, NTCA – The Rural Broadband Association and telecom consulting and research firm Cartesian Group, aims to arm states with a step-by-step guide to tackling the broadband funding process.
The 42-page playbook is a comprehensive manual for what states and territories need to be thinking about and when, what they should be planning for right now, what other state agencies and community organizations they should be collaborating with and more. It also contains case studies from several states like Wisconsin and Illinois that have had success with their own initiatives.
Here are a few key bits of advice from the playbook.
On state broadband offices
Described as the "tip of the spear" for the BEAD program, the playbook advises these offices to define realistic, measurable and long-term broadband objectives; and to leverage stakeholder input both from within state government agencies and the community at large.
It also recommends that states "rapidly identify and resolve internal capacity gaps in preparation for administering BEAD," noting that the scale of the program "will require a full re-think of staffing levels."
To that end, the BEAD program also contains an available $5 million per state in planning funds for a five-year action plan that can be spent on broadband office staffing, technical assistance and research and data collection. States will have the opportunity to indicate their need for up to $5 million in planning funds through a letter of intent, after the NTIA publishes its notice of funding opportunity (NOFO) on May 15, 2022.
On the BEAD application
Once the NOFO is live (and states submit the aforementioned letter of intent, followed by a five-year action plan) – and once NTIA announces each state's estimated BEAD funding – states can submit an "initial proposal" to the NTIA, which will unlock 20% of their estimated funding.
States will also be able to challenge eligibility data coming from the FCC's broadband map if they think they're entitled to more funding. Indeed, several states – like Montana – are preparing for this by developing their own broadband maps.
Notably, states may have some time before either of those steps occur. According to CostQuest, the vendor contracted by the FCC to deliver the new broadband map – from which NTIA will determine each state's eligible funds – the first version will be ready "later this year."
The last step in the BEAD application process is submitting a final proposal. However, the playbook recommends that states develop their final proposals while the challenge process is ongoing "to limit delays in receiving and allocating funding." For the final proposal, it also recommends that states build on their initial proposals, "including updates to design considerations, progress towards grant award, and examples of enacting processes to comply with BEAD requirements."
On designing (fiber-friendly) grant programs
The playbook does not explicitly tell states to fund a specific technology, but it stresses the responsibility they have in using grants to fund infrastructure that can deliver low-latency and ever-higher, symmetrical speeds.
While the infrastructure bill requires broadband projects to meet 100/20 Mbit/s to receive funding, the playbook reminds states this is the floor. "Each state will want to consider whether 100/20 Mbps broadband is going to be sufficient for the needs of its residents and local businesses over the course of the next 10 years and beyond."
On this episode of The Divide, FBA's Gary Bolton discusses the importance of spending infrastructure funds on fiber.
Indeed, in an introduction, the playbook offers an outlook on the need for broadband speeds in the US, noting that average download speeds were 3.7x higher in December 2021 than in December 2016 (a 30.5% annualized growth rate). Upload speeds were 4.2x higher, growing at an annualized rate of 33.3%, in that same period.
On latency, it points out that applications like VR will require "less than 20 ms and augmented reality (AR) as low as 5 ms," while today's average latency is 25 ms.
(Source: Broadband Infrastructure Playbook, via Fiber Broadband Association, NTCA – The Rural Broadband Association and Cartesian Group. Used with permission.)
Point being, the decisions states make now on their broadband infrastructure will have long-term consequences. As the playbook makes plain, this is a one-time opportunity:
"No one expects that the federal government will invest further billions for a network refresh in 5- or 10-years' time. It would be a tremendous loss of opportunity for any given state – and put that state at a competitive disadvantage in a national and global marketplace – if the networks funded today fail to keep pace with the demands of their citizens and community needs."
— Nicole Ferraro, site editor, Broadband World News; senior editor, global broadband coverage, Light Reading. Host of "The Divide" on the Light Reading Podcast.