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NTIA Puts Up $288 Million In Broadband Infrastructure Grants

The NTIA will prioritize projects that bring broadband to greatest number of homes.

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U.S. Secretary of Commerce Gina Raimondo

May 20, 2021 — The U.S. Department of Commerce’s National Telecommunications and Information Administration announced Wednesday the availability of $288 million in grant funding for the deployment of broadband infrastructure, which was established by the Consolidated Appropriations Act of 2021.

The grants will be awarded to partnerships between a state, or political subdivisions of a state, and providers of fixed broadband service.

Applications will be prioritized for projects in the following order: those that are designed to provide broadband service to the greatest number of households in an eligible area; those that provide broadband service to rural areas; those most cost-effective in providing broadband service; and those that provide broadband service with download speeds of at least 100 Mbps and upload speeds of at least 20 Mbps.

“As a former governor, I know that state and local leaders have the best understanding of the gaps in their broadband infrastructure,” said U.S. Secretary of Commerce Gina Raimondo. “This program will allow states and localities to partner with providers to target this funding toward the areas where it is most needed and can do the most good.”

The announcement comes alongside President Biden’s recent infrastructure plan, in which over $100 billion is proposed to help build broadband infrastructure over the next eight years.

“NTIA has built durable partnerships with the states through our State Broadband Leaders Network, and with local governments and their broadband initiatives through our technical assistance offerings and other efforts,” said Acting NTIA Administrator Evelyn Remaley. “We are eager to put these relationships to work to ensure a successful program that expands broadband infrastructure in communities that need it most.”

Reporter Tyler Perkins studied rhetoric and English literature, and also economics and mathematics, at the University of Utah. Although he grew up in and never left the West (both Oregon and Utah) until recently, he intends to study law and build a career on the East Coast. In his free time, he enjoys reading excellent literature and playing poor golf.

Expert Opinion

Christopher Mitchell: Brendan Carr is Wrong on the Treasury Department’s Broadband Rules

The Federal Communications Commission has no excuse for why the agency finished with the same bad data it started with.

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The author of this Expert Opinion is Chris Mitchell, director of the Community Broadband Networks Initiative at Institute for Local Self-Reliance

With all due respect to Federal Communications Commissioner Brendan Carrhis reaction to the Rescue Plan Act’s State and Local Fiscal Relief Fund (SLFRF) spending rules is way off base. As I wrote last week, the rules for broadband infrastructure spending are a good model for pushing down decision-making to the local level where people actually have the information to make informed decisions. (Doug Dawson recently also responded to Commissioner Carr’s statement, offering a response with some overlap of the points below.)

See Christopher Mitchell, Treasury Department Rescue Plan Act Rules Improve Broadband Funding, Broadband Breakfast, January 13, 2022

The Final Rule from the Treasury Department gives broad discretion to local and state governments that choose to spend some of the SLFRF (SLurF-uRF) funds on broadband infrastructure. The earlier draft of rules made it more complicated for networks built to address urban affordability challenges.

However, in coming out against the rules, FCC Commissioner Carr is giving voice to the anger of the big cable and telephone monopolies that cities can, after collecting evidence of need, make broadband investments even in areas where those companies may be selling services already. Commissioner Carr may also be frustrated that he has been reduced to chirping from the sidelines on this issue because the previous FCC, under his party’s leadership, so badly bungled broadband subsidies in the Rural Digital Opportunity Fund (RDOF) that Congress decide NTIA should administer these funds and have the state distribute them.

Nonetheless, the issues that Commissioner Carr raised are common talking points inside the Beltway and we feel that they need to be addressed.

Background Note

The failure of the FCC to assemble an accurate data collection is many years in the making. No single presidential administration can take the full blame for it, but each of them could have corrected it.

President Joe Biden’s FCC is not yet fully assembled because of delays in appointment and in Senate confirmation, but it would not be reasonable to lay blame on the current FCC for the failures discussed below. That said, it is not clear that we are on a course for having better maps and data that will resolve these problems anytime soon.

Commissioner Carr’s Criticism 

Commissioner Carr jumps immediately into the rural vs urban frame, suggesting that the Biden Administration could leave rural families behind by allowing local governments to invest in broadband in areas where an existing provider may already claim to offer service. Outlawing this practice – which he and others close to the largest cable and telephone companies call “overbuilding” – has been a major point for Republican FCC Commissioners.

  • Rather than directing those dollars to the rural and other communities without any Internet infrastructure today, the Administration gives the green light for recipients to spend those funds on overbuilding existing, high-speed networks in communities that already have multiple broadband providers. This would only deepen the digital divide in this country.

Pardon me? Logically, it is not clear what exactly Commissioner Carr is griping about here. Using Maryland as an example, if Baltimore is allowed to spend some of its funds to ensure unconnected families in public housing have high-quality Internet access, it is not clear that rural Garrett County in the western part of the state is harmed. Local governments do not receive different amounts of funds based on whether they spend it on broadband or other allowable expenses.

See Christopher Mitchell and other from the Institute for Local Self Reliance in the Broadband Breakfast Live Online for Wednesday, January 19, 2022 — The Community Broadband Network Approach to Infrastructure Funding

Broadband Breakfast on January 19, 2022 — The Community Broadband Network Approach to Infrastructure Funding

States could be the issue. Perhaps Commissioner Carr is concerned that Maryland will use some of its SLFRF money for broadband and it will spend too much in urban areas rather than rural regions. That would be an historical anomaly, even though there are far more people living in urban areas than in rural areas who are not on the Internet. And yet, nearly all state and federal dollars have gone to rural areas for infrastructure improvements, with very little being spent to help the low-income families left behind in urban areas. There is no history of states prioritizing urban investments over rural.

Bad Data, Srsly?

What I found really galling though was this bit:

  • It gets worse. The Treasury rules allow these billions of dollars to be spent based on bad data. It does this by authorizing recipients to determine whether an area lacks access to high-speed Internet service by relying on informal interviews and reports—however inaccurate those may be—rather than the broadband maps that the federal government has been funding and standing up

It is 2022. The FCC announced three weeks ago that it did not have a timeline for better maps.  Many of us have complained for more than 10 years about the misleading and inaccurate collection of claims that the FCC advances as its understanding of where broadband exists in the United States.

Commissioner Carr has been an FCC Commissioner for more than four years, nearly all of that time when his agency was run by a Republican. For part of that time, the Republicans controlled the Presidency, the House, and the Senate. They have no excuse for why his party’s FCC finished with the same bad data processes it started with. No one was defending the FCC data or maps during those years, but the FCC did not bother to begin collecting new data.

Now Commissioner Carr claims that “parts of this country” have broadband services at speeds near 100 Mbps down and 20 Mbps up. OK, Commissioner. Where? Do you have a secret list? No, these are talking points to obscure the fact that Commissioner Carr and his agency has utterly failed to track precisely what “parts of this country” actually has access to broadband.

Will I agree that most, perhaps 80 percent, of the country has access to 100 by 20 Mbps? Yes. But that doesn’t matter if no one can agree which homes are well-served. And it opens up a whole other set of questions that Carr neatly sidesteps, which is that contemporary broadband service goes beyond the academic question of whether an ISP provides that service most of the time at some price. If the price isn’t affordable, then there is a problem that needs to be addressed. Or as we like to say, if it’s not affordable, it’s not accessible. And, if the service is not very reliable, then there is a problem that must be addressed.

This is why the final rule is both necessary and good: because it allows communities the flexibility they need to address not just the gaps in infrastructure, but reliability and affordability as well. But of course Commissioner Carr should know that we do not have this information at the federal level, because I’m quite sure he opposes collecting pricing and other information. Despite the many instances in which providers have lied to the Commission in presenting the areas they offer service, Carr objects per se to local evidence gathered via interviews to understand where broadband actually is.

A Prediction: This Is Not A Problem

It is remarkable to see the amount of performative horror Commissioner Carr expresses at the prospect of a city like Baltimore using some of the Rescue Plan dollars to ensure its families in public housing are on the Internet, even if a cable provider could theoretically sell them Internet access for $75/month, or provide a subsidized service if they jump through all the right hoops. Compare that to the silence from the Commissioner when it became clear that the largest telephone companies took billions of dollars in broadband subsidies and might have forgotten to upgrade their services.

The SLFRF Treasury Rules give the appropriate amount of deference to local and state leaders to act in an utter void of information about what is available to each home. Commissioner Carr is deeply worried – because the largest cable and telephone companies are deeply worried – that some places will use these dollars to build networks that are unneeded or would create too much competition for the existing companies.

My prediction is that communities will not do this. Of course it’s not zero: a cardinal rule of dealing with large numbers of humans is that there are always outliers. But of the cities that allocate some of their SLFRF dollars to broadband infrastructure, they will overwhelmingly focus on areas where there are real affordability and reliability challenges from existing services. The reality is that very few of these investments will result in any material losses to existing ISPs, but the monopoly providers know that even modestly opening the door to locally built and operated infrastructure driven by community-driven solutions could open the floodgates to the competition they fear so much.

Commissioner Carr has spent years as one of a very small number of people that could correct the abject failure of the FCC to collect useful information about broadband deployments. The rest of us have had to move on and figure out how to work in the absence of data. The best option is to allow for local decision-making where they can collect evidence and act. And most importantly, they will have to take responsibility for their actions and lack of action in ways that FCC Commissioners often do not.

Editor’s Note: This piece was authored by Christopher Mitchell, director of the Institute for Local Self Reliance’s Community Broadband Network Initiative. His work focuses on helping communities ensure that the telecommunications networks upon which they depend are accountable to the community. He was honored as one of the 2012 Top 25 in Public Sector Technology by Government Technology, which honors the top “Doers, Drivers, and Dreamers” in the nation each year. This piece was originally published on MuniNetworks.org on January 20, 2022, and is reprinted with permission.

Broadband Breakfast accepts commentary from informed observers of the broadband scene. Please send pieces to commentary@breakfast.media. The views expressed in Expert Opinion pieces do not necessarily reflect the views of Broadband Breakfast and Breakfast Media LLC.

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Preparing Collaboration Model, Data Collection Suggested Before Infrastructure Money Flows

With infrastructure bill, there is no longer a shortage of funds for states to expand their broadband infrastructure, consultants said.

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Joanne Hovis, president of CTC Technology and Energy

WASHINGTON, January 20, 2022 – While billions in federal dollars from the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act are still many months away, work can be done to tie-up some loose ends, including figuring out internet speed criteria and best partnerships for broadband builds, said a consultant Wednesday.

Heather Gold, founder and CEO of broadband consulting firm HBG Strategies, noted on a Broadband Bunch webinar that the $65 billion for broadband from the infrastructure bill won’t be available until next year. But she noted that infrastructure money and existing American Rescue Plan Act funding means states are no longer financially limited in their efforts to expand broadband.

That means internet service providers and states need to be thinking about how to manage this pool of funds, according to Joanne Hovis, president of engineering and consulting firm CTC Technology and Energy.

Hovis said local service providers can get ahead by choosing the right collaboration model for broadband builds. That includes partnerships with electric cooperatives, which can own wood poles on which telecoms attach their equipment, or a partnership with the local government, such as that being done in Vermont.

Hovis also encouraged data collection efforts to make broadband service prices publicly available and easily accessible knowledge, and advocated for competitive bidding processes for broadband grants that result in benefits for as many service providers as possible.

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NTIA Official Says Rural Broadband Funds Do Not Disqualify Area from New Broadband Monies

While NTIA will interpret grant funding under the law, it’s up to states to determine where to allocate money.

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Justin Perkins and Scott D. Woods on a Zoom video call

January 19, 2022 – The federal government agency charged with the task of doling out the $42.5 billion of broadband infrastructure funding hasn’t ruled out the idea of letting grant applicants use the money allocated to them from the Infrastructure, Investment and Jobs Act to cover areas that will also be covered from grants given to projects from the Rural Digital Opportunity Fund.

The Commerce Department’s Scott D. Woods said the “policy team is working on [this]” and to “stay tuned” to further announcements. As a general rule, areas don’t “have federal assets for the similar purposes in the same area,” but there are “nuances to that.”

Woods is the National Telecommunications and Information Administration’s director of the Office of Minority Broadband Initiatives at the agency’s Office of Internet Connectivity and Growth.

He made the remark during a recent “Ask Me Anything” interview with Broadband Breakfast Reporter Justin Perkins. Broadband Breakfast is a sister publication to Broadband.Money and is a privately-run media and conference company headquartered in Washington, D.C.

Grant applicants concerned about this specific issue should submit questions about it for the record in comments they should submit to the NTIA, Woods said. All comments are due February 4, 2022.

The Federal Register notice and instructions on how to file comments is here.

More information, including the NTIA’s  scoring criteria for grant applications, will be found in the Notice of Funding Opportunity coming out in May.

Doug Dawson, an influential broadband consultant of CCG Consulting (and blogger) wrote a blog post early January implying that RDOF covered areas wouldn’t be eligible for IIJA grant funding.

During the AMA, Woods took questions from the Broadband.Money community and discussed IIJA’s compatibility with RDOF, expectations for state plans, private-public partnerships, and the role of the community.

While the NTIA will be interpreting the terms of the grant funding as laid out in the IIJA, it’s up to the states to determine where to allocate the money.

The “state plans…ultimately have to reflect the needs of the unserved [and] underserved communities,” Woods said.

Perkins also emphasized how important it is “for the communities to give their input sooner rather than later, so that the NTIA can develop regulations that are really going to reflect the needs that these broadband programs are asking for.”

Despite the expedited timetable laid out in the IIJA, Woods said that states should be ready to submit rigorously-planned proposals to the NTIA when they ask for federal funding for their five-year broadband plans.

Some states don’t have any formal broadband offices in place, but most already have some basic organizational structures. Woods said that the NTIA is there to help states that might need more hand-holding through the grant application process.

Role of public-private partnerships

Woods also discussed the importance of private-public partnerships.

These partnerships will help with infrastructure, as well as “equity, inclusion, [and] adoption,” he said.

Public-private partnerships are built on “trust and transparency,” said Woods.

“There’s a lot of work to do, as well,” said Woods. “Trust is based on your words and your actions.”

One community member asked when the NTIA will announce its decisions on its $288 million for broadband infrastructure program, a separate broadband program funded under the 2021 appropriation bill. Woods said to check NTIA’s website, and that these announcements will be coming “soon.”

Woods also emphasized the importance of the role of the community to the forthcoming years-long broadband buildout. Everyone need to “provide information, to provide data, to provide feedback on what’s needed in the community.”

Instead of favoring one technology over another, such as fiber over wireless, the NTIA is going to “leave it to the states…to adopt what best works for them and their communities.”

“There’s a role for all technologies,” he said.

A version of this piece was originally published on Broadband.Money on January 19, 2022. You can find out more about Broadband.Money‘s past and future events and AMAs here. Don’t forget to come and participate in our discussion on Friday over who should receive IIJA money, in your opinion, and our Friday, January 28, 2022, Ask Me Anything! event With Ben Bawtree-Jobson, CEO @ SiFI Networks.

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