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Treasury Announces Summer Deadline For Coronavirus Capital Projects Fund

$10 billion dollars are being made available to communities in need to better connect their communities.

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Photo of Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen

May 10, 2021—The Treasury Department issued a statement Monday outlining the Coronavirus Capital Projects Fund to address broadband access shortcomings, including setting a summer deadline for applications.

The fund is a component of the American Rescue Plan that is designed to help Americans, whether they are living in states, territories, or tribal lands. The ARP will provide $10 billion to carry out improvements to broadband infrastructure, with special attention to telehealth, telework, and distance learning within economically disadvantaged communities.

Applicants for the fund must provide a plan for how they intend to utilize potential funding, explain why their project is critical in nature, and how it will benefit un(der)served Americans.

The funds can be directed towards improving infrastructure, providing devices for telehealth and distance learning, or setting up equipment to facilitate the aforementioned goals.

Funds can also be made available to address the construction of community hubs that many municipalities established so that those without a broadband subscription can still access hotspots and devices.

The Treasury made available the Interim Final Rule for the Coronavirus State and Local Fiscal Recovery Funds. This is a separate pot of money that was designed to address many of the same goals as the Coronavirus Capital Projects Fund. The Treasury encouraged applicants to seek out public input in order to better explain the unique issues that are facing communities in need.

Reporter Ben Kahn is a graduate of University of Baltimore and the National Journalism Center. His work has appeared in Washington Jewish Week and The Center Square, among other publications. He he covered almost every beat at Broadband Breakfast.

Broadband Mapping & Data

Panel Suggest Need for Tracking Mechanism for Broadband Infrastructure Funding

Panelists are concerned that states may not have had the prescriptive guidance needed to maximize funding.

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Photo of Jonathan Chaplin, managing partner of New Street Research

WASHINGTON, January 31, 2023 – There needs to be a way to consistently track the billions in broadband infrastructure money coming from the federal government, panelists said at an Information Technology and Innovation Foundation event Tuesday.

With $42.5 billion coming to the states from the National Telecommunications and Information Administration’s Broadband Equity, Access and Deployment Program, experts floated the idea of having mandated ongoing reporting requirements on what that money is doing.

“Money goes out from the government in broadband stimulus, but we don’t track where it’s going very well,” said Sarah Oh Lam, senior fellow at the Technology Policy Institute, a federal funded research and development center. “We really don’t know outcomes…and I don’t see many efforts in mandating that we collect data from this [stimulus] round from the grantees that receive money.

“After it’s out the door, not as much attention is paid to evaluation, tracking, really measuring: Did the ways that the money was distributed – was it effective? How could it be improved?” Oh Lam added. “So I really recommend that people working on this round of IIJA and BEAD funding put in that requirement to collect data from the grantees and to really report results five years out, 10 years out.”

The unprecedented $65 billion made available to broadband infrastructure by the Infrastructure, Investment and Jobs Act is being seen as a once in a generation opportunity to provide access to high-speed internet to all Americans.

Piggybacking off that point, Brookings Institution senior fellow Nicol Turner-Lee said her research group is discussing their own version of a tracking mechanism, noting the number of broadband programs from BEAD to the Agriculture Department’s ReConnect.

“We are talking about a broadband dashboard, so something that is in real time because we have a lot of urgency” about this, Turner-Lee said.

“I think one way to increase public transparency about this spending is through some type of dashboard, that begins to show you where those investments are being made, what localities, what regions, what states, and the extent to which…just the improvement of data infrastructure — who’s involved with some of these decisions,” she added. “I think many of us are seeing states put together councils, but on the back-end we’re also hearing, ‘I didn’t know this was going on in my state.’

“Perhaps some of these dashboards can indicate that participatory process in addition to how the money is being spent, particularly as we lean in to where we are going to have to have some accountability on larger allotments of spending.”

Screenshot of the ITIF panel on Tuesday

However, Rob Rubinovitz, senior vice president and chief economist at trade association NCTA, said that’s all very difficult to do, adding the NCTA has tried that. He noted that the jurisdictions down to the county level do things differently, which means different ways of collecting data.

He suggested perhaps a more uniform way of collecting the data for all recipients of funding would help resolve the issue.

Concern about how states utilize funds

Along those lines, there was also some lingering concern on the panel about the NTIA’s guidelines for broadband funding being less prescriptive than it should have been.

Jonathan Chaplin, managing partner at New Street Research, said the guidance was vague in some areas – for example, in the case of a preference for open access networks, which allow other service providers to piggyback off of the same infrastructure – with the concern being “we’re going to end up with variability with how the funds are deployed across states.

Chaplin noted that $42.5 billion — $100 million for each state as a baseline — is not enough on its own to close the digital divide for the 14 million unserved homes in America, recommending that states maximize the draw of private capital to get the funding required to do that.

“Some states are going to do it much better than others,” Chaplin said, “and we could end up with some states missing this historic opportunity to close the digital divide once and for all.”

The NTIA is expected to allocate the rest of the BEAD money to states by June 30.

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Funding

NTIA Officials Urge Use of Agency Resources for Digital Equity Planning

Agency officials outlined helpful material for states looking to develop digital equity plans.

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Screenshot of Katarina Smiley, digital equity advisor at the NTIA

WASHINGTON, January 31, 2023 – National Telecommunications and Information Administration officials are urging states to take advantage of available resources when developing digital equity plans. 

The NTIA provides general technical assistance resources that the Commerce Department agency said both stakeholders and states will find helpful, including a list of best practices for digital inclusion activities, recommendations for preparing planning requirements, and a plan template. 

Accessing federal resources will set states on a “great path forward” to promote digital equity, said Richelle Crotty, technical assistance advisor for digital equity at an NTIA event Wednesday. 

Because stakeholder involvement is a crucial element to the program, the NTIA provides specific guidance on how to conduct accessible meetings and discuss keys to successful coalition operations.  

Stakeholder involvement cannot be overemphasized, stressed Katarina Smiley, digital equity advisor at NTIA. Communicate what the divide looks like in your community, share digital inclusion models and advocate for community research, she urged state leaders. 

The BEAD-DE Alignment Guide can help states align program requirements and coordinate activities across the NTIA’s $42.5 billion Broadband Equity, Access and Deployment Program and the Digital Equity Program. 

As part of the Infrastructure, Investment and Jobs Act, the $2.5 billion Digital Equity Program created three sub-programs to “ensure that all communities can access and use affordable, reliable high-speed Internet.” 

The first program, which is currently underway, provides $60 million for states to develop digital equity plans. The subsequent steps include $1.44 billion for implementing plans and $1.25 billion toward digital equity and inclusion activities. 

Currently, all 50 states have been awarded Digital Equity Planning Grants upwards of $4 million. Plans are required to identify the key barriers to digital equity faced by its population, measurable objectives for promoting broadband technology, steps to collaborate with key stakeholders, and a digital equity needs assessment. 

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Infrastructure

Utilities Coalition Warns Against Shifting Cost of Replacing Poles

‘Utilities have been willing to perform these voluntary pole replacements because they have been compensated for it.’

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Photo of linemen on a pole from 2015 by Lisa Meiman

WASHINGTON, January 23, 2023 – A coalition consisting of 37 electric utility companies serving 31 million households is warning the Federal Communications Commission that shifting the cost burden of replacing wood poles to house communications equipment onto utilities will make them less likely to take voluntary action to help telecoms expand.

The Coalition of Concern Utilities said in a letter Thursday that the FCC’s current study into whether it should order utilities to share in the cost of replacing poles should factor what those utilities have been doing on a voluntary basis – “prematurely” replacing their poles for telecoms despite it diverting resources from “system reliability, grid modernization and clean energy initiatives.

“Despite these disincentives to prematurely replacing poles for communications companies, utilities for four decades have been willing to perform these voluntary pole replacements because they have been compensated for it,” the letter said.

Traditionally, pole owners can invoice to a telecommunications company the cost of replacing the entire pole if it feels the equipment to be attached would warrant it.

The coalition added that submissions to the commission to “modify this longstanding, carefully balanced and successful cost reimbursement mechanism would cause many utilities to reconsider, for the first time in four decades, whether dropping everything to perform voluntary and premature pole replacements is worth the time, effort and expense.”

Shifting even some part of the cost to the utilities would likely be absorbed by them, the coalition argues, because the utilities will be “hard-pressed” to justify to state utility commissions “how pole replacements solely necessitate by communications attacher requests is a benefit to electric rate payers.”

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