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This year in broadband

Bowling Green, Kentucky (December 14, 2022) – 2022 proved to be a monumental year for closing the Digital Divide in the United States. Initiatives approved by U.S. Congress and signed by the Biden Administration late in 2021 established generous funding pools for state and local governments to invest in broadband infrastructure, devices, and digital literacy programs. Moreover, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) released updated broadband coverage maps — allowing households and businesses to readily evaluate their service options and challenge whether providers offer service. In other ways, we took a step back. For example, the end of emergency declarations from the COVID-19 pandemic limited access to affordable telehealth for millions of Americans.

This article evaluates the broadband landscape from the past year and highlights achievements, setbacks, and potential future challenges.

Major strides in federal funding

The biggest stories from 2022 revolve around funding passed at the federal level in 2021. On November 15, 2021, President Biden signed the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act into law. The legislation amounts to a $1.2 trillion spending package dedicated to highways, public transportation, rail programs, and broadband access, among other things.

Related to broadband, the legislation extends the emergency broadband benefit established during the pandemic (renamed the Affordable Connectivity Program and allocated an additional $14.2 billion). It also extends the Tribal Connectivity Program established earlier in 2021 (with an additional $2 billion allocation), and creates two new grant programs — BEAD and the DEA.

The Broadband Equity, Access, and Deployment (BEAD) Program dedicates $42.45 billion toward expanding high-speed internet access through planning, infrastructure deployment, and adoption programs. Any U.S. state or territory could apply.

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Each state is eligible for a minimum allocation of $100 million (including up to $5 million in initial planning funds), and each territory is eligible for a minimum allocation of $25 million (including up to $1.25 million in initial planning funds).

Letters of intent were due on July 18 of this year, and requests for initial planning funds were due on August 15. Once states receive allocation announcements, they have 270 days to submit a five-year action plan. The NTIA expects to announce all allocations on a rolling basis by June 30, 2023.

The Digital Equity Act (DEA) dedicates $2.75 billion to fund three grant programs over a five-year period that emphasize digital equity and inclusion. Any U.S. state or territory could apply. Sixty million dollars of that sum will be allocated toward state planning grants, $1.44 billion will be allocated toward the implementation of those plans, and an additional $1.25 billion will be allocated through a competitive grant program.

States had to submit planning grant applications by July 12 of this year, and allocation announcements have started. Territories have until January 17, 2023, to submit their applications.

A step forward, and a step back

Alongside these accomplishments, the FCC released pre-production versions of its new broadband maps this November. These maps illustrate connectivity at the structural level — making it easier for households and businesses to determine whether broadband is available, and from which providers.

Individual locations or groups of locations can log challenges against the map if they cannot receive a service that the maps claim to be available at that/those location(s). At the macro level, this granular data will allow federal agencies to make informed decisions about funding allocations and help state and local governments distribute resources to areas with the greatest need.

While the grants and the new maps represent important advances for broadband expansion and digital equity, we also took some steps back in 2022. As a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, in 2020, every state implemented some sort of waiver that made telehealth more accessible for residents. These waivers were especially pivotal for rural areas, where residents often travel farther for necessary medical services (or forego them entirely due to travel time and/or the cost of travel).

However, many states ended their telehealth waivers over the course of this year. As of November 15, only seven states still have waivers in effect. The waivers certainly saved lives, and their conclusion eliminates an avenue for many Americans to receive care using digital technologies.

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Challenges and opportunities ahead

Looking toward 2023, these developments come with inherent challenges that will have to be addressed. First and foremost, state and local governments will need to craft broadband action plans that remediate service gaps, bolster existing infrastructure, and promote digital equity — not an easy feat. After the planning process concludes, they will need to turn their attention to workforce development to ensure that there are enough skilled workers to implement their plans.

Regarding the broadband maps, both individuals and government entities need to submit their location challenges to the FCC by January 13, 2023. Given the abbreviated submission period, some state and local governments may struggle to submit a bulk challenge on time, and the resulting maps would not be reflective of local access. This discordance could create confusion for individuals looking up their service options, but more importantly, overrepresentation of coverage could negatively impact BEAD allocations next summer.

After the deadline, the FCC and internet service providers (ISPs) will have to parse through the challenges and amend the map where appropriate. This process comes with its own unique set of challenges; in particular, addressing them will require significant human capital and time commitments. While large ISPs may be equipped to bear the burden, smaller ISPs may struggle to keep up.

The future of broadband looks bright in many ways. Building upon the groundwork laid in 2022, the upcoming year will be critical for expanding broadband access, improving digital equity, and closing the Digital Divide in the United States.

At Connected Nation, we look forward to being part of that endeavor.

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About the Author: David Nunnally is the Connected Nation research assistant. David is responsible for using qualitative and quantitative techniques to interpret survey data, in addition to collecting data from secondary sources to help support those findings. David works with internal and external stakeholders to help develop research and provide critical information in support of the Connected Nation mission.