States will have to lead when it comes to BEAD: here’s how to make the most of billions in new federal funding
The time is NOW to prepare for Broadband Equity, Access, and Deployment (BEAD) funding
Washington, D.C. (March 22, 2022) - States, get ready! The Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act (IIJA) gives you the best opportunity ever to close the Digital Divide, but it will present many challenges. What state leaders do today and in the months ahead could impact the lives of their constituents for years to come.
Connected Nation (CN) stands ready to provide the expert advice and support states will need to make the most of unprecedentedly abundant federal broadband funding — especially the $42.45 billion available through the Broadband Equity, Access, and Deployment (BEAD) Program initiated by IIJA.
No other organization in the United States has as rich a combination of hands-on and thought leadership experience in broadband policy and closing the Digital Divide as CN, which has been pursuing this mission nationwide for 20 years. The national nonprofit has mapped broadband extensively, administered broadband grant programs, and functioned as a broadband office for some states, while mobilizing communities, training workers in digital skills, and identifying digital equity and inclusion solutions.
You can find more details on how CN can help your state by heading here. In addition, based on the nonprofit's experience, the following items are some of the biggest challenges and actions states should take immediately, as they prepare to implement BEAD:
Build capacity and update statutes
First, states that don’t have broadband grant programs will need to create them, while those that do have them will need to update them to satisfy the requirements of the BEAD Program. For example:
- Many state grant programs exclude municipal broadband projects and/or other noncorporate providers, in a way that the BEAD Program disallows.
- Many state grant programs exclude from eligibility areas that already enjoy 25/3 Mbps service, but the BEAD Program will require states also to target “underserved” areas that have 25/3 but lack 100/20.
- The BEAD Program includes a new requirement that funded providers offer a “low-cost broadband option” for low-income households.
Program rules and some statutes will need to be updated to make existing broadband grant programs ready to serve as vehicles of the BEAD Program.
What to do about the Rural Digital Opportunity Fund (RDOF)
Second, states must decide what to do with existing funded projects that have not yet been built out, especially those awarded by the FCC’s RDOF program.
The RDOF reverse auction took place in December 2020, and awards were announced in January 2021. RDOF was highly successful in securing ambitious deployment commitments from ISPs in return for relatively small subsidies. But aggressive initial bidding and cost escalations cast doubt on whether all RDOF projects will perform.
Wise public-policy considerations indicate, and forthcoming federal guidance is likely to require, that RDOF projects that are on track should be protected from subsidized competitors using BEAD Program money. But RDOF territories could face disaster if RDOF projects fail and cause them to be excluded from the BEAD Program. Top-up subsidies to cash-strapped RDOF winners may be a smart fix in some cases, but they raise fairness issues and may run afoul of federal guidance.
For most states, handling the interaction of RDOF and BEAD will be critical to durably closing the Digital Divide, and will be full of opportunities and pitfalls. States will need to discern public interest in the face of strong lobbying efforts from knowledgeable parties, in a space where independent experts are scarce.
States need to give civil society a voice and build consensus
Third, the IIJA requires, and forthcoming federal guidance is expected to detail the requirements for, extensive stakeholder consultations, leading to the development and publication of a five-year action plan. This plan will guide your state’s implementation of the BEAD Program.
Your state will need to foster a broad-based conversation about broadband policy, document it for the NTIA, and try to adapt its implementation of the BEAD Program to align with the stakeholder interests. But conflicting interests, and the IIJA statute and forthcoming federal guidance, will limit your states’ ability to appease all stakeholders.
States will probably not be allowed to accommodate providers’ preference to be protected from overbuilding if they’re offering less than 100/20 speeds. And states should consider whether and how to limit the spend on laying fiber conduit to very remote locations where the investment may not be cost-effective to maintain.
States need to be GIS smart and focus on GeoAnalytics
At all stages of the BEAD process, states will likely need a high degree of GeoAnalytical skill, in-house or contracted, to support policy decision-making and program administration.
During stakeholder consultations and action plan development, good broadband maps will be needed to educate participants about the problems to be addressed. Before grant rounds can be launched, eligibility maps will need to be published.
During the application review process, mapping will be needed to avoid inadvertently funding overlapping projects, and considerable GeoAnalytical forethought will be needed in the design of grant programs to define the decision rules that should be applied when projects overlap. And planning for and implementing efficient complementarity of BEAD with RDOF and the existing broadband funding landscape will likely involve many GeoAnalytical challenges.
The new FCC maps will be critical to defining and achieving universal broadband access, but downloading and manipulating them, and possibly challenging them, will pose further GeoAnalytical challenges.
Don’t walk, run! Act now.
Since procurement processes can be lengthy and difficult, now is a good time for states to proactively recruit and secure services that they will foreseeably need to carry out the BEAD Program and achieve universal broadband access for their residents. CN can help states navigate this complicated landscape.
In addition to helping state leaders develop action plans for BEAD, CN offers assistance with digital skills and literacy training; urban and rural workforce development programs focused on remote work training and job placement support; community technology planning and solutions for expanding access, adoption, and use of broadband; developing more granular broadband coverage maps through GeoAnalytics; support to improve school internet networks; and so much more.
Meanwhile, CN also recommends that states consult other expert advice that is becoming available to make the best-informed decisions. For example, the Broadband Infrastructure Playbook, published by the Fiber Broadband Association and the Rural Broadband Association (NTCA), is a highly informative and practical guide to what states need to do, and what options they have, over the next few years as they implement the BEAD program. It reflects, to some extent, the perspective of the fiber industry and rural telephone companies.
States can also explore philanthropically funded free advice from the National Broadband Resource Hub, and help may be forthcoming in future from an alliance of nonprofit, academic, philanthropic, public-interest, and corporate partners called Opportunity Broadband, organized by Pew Charitable Trusts.