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States Should Be Encouraged to Form Public-Private Partnerships for Federal Broadband Funds

An expert panel convened by US Telecom agreed that public/private telecom partnerships are an effective use of federal broadband funds.

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Photo of Joanne Hovis taken from CTC with permission.

June 10, 2021—Encouraging public-private partnerships to tackle lacking broadband infrastructure is America’s best option at moving forward in closing the digital divide, according to a panel of policy advisors and tech industry officials.

The panelists, who convened Wednesday for a forum hosted by US Telecom, agreed that federal and state governments encouraging public-private partnerships would reduce the risks associated with private enterprise and incent the latter to better bring broadband services to unserved and underserved America.

The disincentive rests in the fact that, for private telecommunications companies, there is no reason to build costly infrastructure, such as a fiber install, to sparsely populated areas unless government aid is added in the mix to offset losses.

And this trend of public-private collaboration, which are now used as incentives for federal money, will bring about enormous possibilities in bridging the digital divide, others agree.

Unique opportunities for funding

On Tuesday, another panel hosted by the Fiber Broadband Association noted the opportunities in public-private partnerships to get going on broadband projects.

Joanne Hovis, president of CTC Technology and Energy, said the opportunities for grant money are “enormous” on both the “federal and state” levels. “Quite extensively, in regard to these grant programs, public-private collaboration is laced through many of them,” she says. “They reward collaboration in ways that would not have been the case even just a few years ago.”

The National Telecommunications and Information Administration grant

The National Telecommunications and Information Administration announced last month $288 million in grant funding for the deployment of broadband infrastructure. The NTIA’s Broadband Infrastructure Project aims to deploy needed broadband infrastructure in un(der)served America.

Heather Mills, a principal analyst and leader of CTC’s funding and strategies team, said the NTIA is unclear on what criteria funding will be rewarded to applicants, but that the grant favors public-private partnerships.

She noted that while the funding for this grant may be relatively small, it will limit the number of applicants who receive funding and thereby assure only the most qualified applicants receive the grant awards. She says that the most creative partnerships are the ones that will most likely win the funding.

The NTIA also announced last week $1 billion in grant funding for companies seeking to provide broadband service to un(der)served tribal land. There was no comment on whether this grant similarly will prioritize public-private partnerships.

U.S. Department of Treasury’s Capital Projects Fund

The American Rescue Plan Act of 2021 established the $10-billion Capital Projects Fund to provide funding to states, territories, and tribal governments to address necessary capital projects, including broadband services. Hovis said the fund will enable states to address these projects more directly than they could by themselves.

Mills says that the CPF mandates that the states provide a plan to the U.S. Department of Treasury on how the funds will be used. Hovis says that the localized nature of the funding will lead states to award funding based upon public support. She said private companies will partner with public entities who have already gained public support in order to make themselves more attractive applicants to the state governments.

The need for broadband mapping

The FCC’s Measuring Broadband America project aims to collect data on broadband availability nationwide, but Melissa Mann, vice president of public policy and government affairs at Lumen, said at the USTelecom forum Wednesday she believes individual states are better equipped to identify their own broadband needs.

Last month, the Federal Communications Commission was accused of underreporting the number of Americans lacking broadband access. BroadbandNow criticized the FCC of reporting that 14.5 million Americans lacked high-speed internet, whereas BroadbandNow projected that number to be around 42 million.

Mann says that states can be “laser-focused on unserved areas,” whereas the federal government may struggle to identify what areas 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.

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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Funding

Mayors Urged to Get Moving on State Conversations for Federal Broadband Funding

Time is running out to have cities’ voices heard at state broadband roundtables.

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Photo of Scott Woods (left) and Jase Wilson

WASHINGTON, January 18, 2023 – Representatives from a company that helps internet service providers and local governments get federal broadband money urged mayors of cities across the country Wednesday to quickly get involved in the process by actively engaging their state broadband offices or get left behind.

Scott Woods and Jase Wilson, vice president for community engagement and strategic partnerships and CEO, respectively, at Ready.net told the 91st United States Conference of Mayors in Washington that time was running out to have their voices heard at state roundtables.

Woods noted that the current version of the Federal Communications Commission’s maps are “overstated,” meaning there are inaccuracies in it. But if cities don’t have a plan or don’t come to the state broadband offices and plead their case for better connectivity, they will be left out.

The pair asked the packed conference hall at the Capitol Hilton whether they had conversations with their state broadband offices, but the vast majority did not raise their hands.

“The opportunity is now,” Wilson urged, adding the company’s Broadband.money has created a site and a broadband audit allowing mayors to get them up to speed. Broadband.money is a sponsor of Broadband Breakfast.

The National Telecommunications and Information Administration, which administers the $42.5 billion Broadband Equity, Access and Deployment program, has said that the accurate delivery of the money to connect the underconnected will be contingent on the readiness of the FCC map, which had a deadline to challenge its contents on January 13, 2023.

Each states is expected to be allocated at least $100 million by June 30, with many states receiving much, much more. After the June 30 kickoff, entities, including cities, can apply for a piece of the pie.

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Funding

Regulation, Reporting Requirements and Oversight Can Make a Difference in Grant Applications

Several documents will improve application competitiveness, said Paul Garnett of Vernonburg Group.

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Photo of Paul Garnett, CEO of the Vernonburg Group

WASHINGTON, January 13, 2023 – Regulation, reporting requirements, audits, and oversight can provide serious barriers to entities looking to receive funds from various federal broadband programs, said Vernonburg Group CEO Paul Garnett in a Thursday webinar hosted by wireless provider, Telrad.

These regulatory and financial barriers can make the difference between a successful and an unsuccessful project, he said. It is essential that applicants prepare all necessary documentation to satisfy requirements well before applying to these programs, he continued, identifying several key barriers states may face.

Irrevocable letters of credit, a guarantee for payment which cannot be cancelled during some specified time period, provide risk mitigation for program administrators and are often a key “difference maker” in making an application more competitive, Garnett said.

Its importance was highlighted as several applicants to the Federal Communications Commission’s Rural Digital Opportunity Fund won auctions for locations but were unable to qualify for funding due to not being able to raise irrevocable letters of credit, claimed Garnett.

Furthermore, he continued, audited financial statements spanning at least three years are often required for program applications. Regularly, applications will be rejected immediately when financial statements are omitted, he said.

Finally, although applicants may not anticipate a need, establishing lines of credit is an essential step to ensure that entities have the funding required for approved projects well in advance, said Garnett. He added that oftentimes, federal programs do not pay entities upfront but instead reimburse for expenses incurred.

Making Applications Simpler

The Vernonburg Group said it is working to make applications easier for entities by providing a simple visualization of basic mapping information in its free digital equity map released in December. Companies are able to easily create data visualizations and see correlation between national and local data sets, claimed its CEO.

The company works to help ISPs and state and local broadband program administrators identify locations eligible for funding by highlighting high scoring potential service areas on a heat map. It extracts availability, fixed broadband adoption, device ownership, and demographic statistics for any defined coverage area.

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