Originally published at Route Fifty.
States will receive billions to improve broadband access, but have limited experience administering broadband grant programs. Here are important priorities to consider to effectively use the money.
Upcoming infrastructure investments into broadband hold the potential to make meaningful progress in closing the digital divide. The Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act includes $65 billion in broadband investment, of which $42.45 billion is directed toward physical network infrastructure in unserved and underserved areas of the United States. The bulk of the remaining amount is to fund the Affordable Connectivity Program, which provides a $30 monthly subsidy for qualifying households to obtain broadband connectivity at home.
While the federal government has deep experience managing broadband programs, states have only recently with the American Rescue Plan and the soon-to-be released IIJA funds been faced with the task of overseeing significant telecom infrastructure grant programs on their own.
Although many states are adept at grant administration, IIJA-funded broadband infrastructure program execution requires deep capabilities beyond what most states have in areas such as telecom network architecture, broadband technologies (e.g., fiber to the home, fixed wireless access, satellite), mapping, data analytics and network economics. Traditional state grant management programs will fall well short of meeting the program goals if they’re not appropriately augmented with such capabilities.
Key priorities for the grant program include:
- Developing a statewide five-year strategic plan that serves as the foundation for successful investment and fulfills the IIJA submission requirements to the National Telecommunications and Information Administration. Sample activities include:
- Outreach to counties and cities, industry stakeholders, public safety entities, community organizations and others.
- Identifying and analyzing demographic data, community-specific barriers to adoption, existing funding and adoption programs and specific locations that should be prioritized.
- Analysis on how to best serve unserved locations in the eligible entity, whether through the establishment of cooperatives or public-private partnerships.
- Documentation of the technical assistance and amount of time required to build out universal broadband service in the state.
- Definition of the desired outcomes to support prioritization (e.g., educational attainment).
- Defining a grant strategy to maximize impact of the funds, including decisions like technology prioritization (e.g., fixed wireless vs. fiber), desire to impact the competitive marketplace (e.g., incumbents vs. new entrants), and specific approach to issuing grants (e.g., matching funds, reverse auctions).
- Identifying and mapping underserved and unserved households and assessing the root cause (e.g., access, technical literacy) to augment Federal Communications Commission mapping activities and to ensure that the state receives the appropriate share of IIJA funds.
- Identifying and removing barriers to successful, fast and economical network deployments (e.g., local permitting challenges, right-of-way usage, skilled labor shortages).
- Developing grant applications that enable the state to gather the requisite information to assess the viability of the applicants’ business and technology plans.
- Evaluating applications in a comprehensive manner that allows the state to: assess cost, schedule and technology risk; community impact; and ongoing operational viability. Performing deep follow-up engagement with applicants to challenge key assumptions and pressure test the team’s ability to execute.
- Implementing the required tools and processes for ongoing management of the grant program in compliance with the IIJA, NTIA’s implementation framework, state laws and other federal regulations.
The pandemic highlighted the importance of broadband in providing access to education and health care. The IIJA represents a generational investment in closing the digital divide and treating broadband like the critical utility it is. In order to capitalize on this opportunity and maximize the impact to residents, states must quickly assign responsibility (e.g., office of economic development, broadband development office), allocate sufficient funding, secure the required skills and capabilities and commence planning activities.
States should work now, if not already, to prepare a statewide strategy in anticipation of expected mid-year NTIA deadlines, and ensure they have the needed staff and requisite third-party support to fill planning and technical expertise gaps. They should also be obtaining community input, aligning on desired outcomes and prioritization methodology, answering key technology questions and working to build consensus around the statewide strategy.
By taking these steps now, states will be well positioned to expand broadband connectivity efficiently and rapidly to those desperately in need when the funding becomes available.
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