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.
North Carolina Officials Tout Recent Investments in Rural Fiber
North Carolina hopes to achieve 80 percent subscription to broadband services among its citizens.
September 9, 2022 – With $260 million being awarded by North Carolina to several fiber deployments, a key state official highlighted his strategy toward broadband infrastructure, community engagement, mapping and digital literacy initiatives.
Speaking on Wednesday at the Fiber Broadband Association’s Fiber for Breakfast event, Nate Denny, deputy secretary of the North Carolina Department of Information Technology’s Broadband and Digital Equity Division, said that the Tar Heel State allocated more than $1 billion from its American Rescue Plan funding for different facets of broadband deployment.
Dubbed the Growing Rural Economies with Access to Technology, $260 million of an anticipated $380 million is to be awarded, including $206 on August 31, 2022.
According to Denny, the $260 million already allocated will span 92 counties and connect more than 115,000 new homes and businesses.
Additionally, the private sector has provided $120 million in matching funds to the $260 million in public funds already spent, Denny said.
GREAT is a reimbursement program, Denny explained, and grantees have two years to complete projects under state supervision. Grantees thus far include major national companies – including AT&T and Charter – as well as small regional providers and cooperatives.
Beneficiaries of GREAT funding are expected to participate in the Federal Communications Commission’s Affordable Connectivity Program, which provides discounts on monthly internet bills and eligible device purchases to low-income households.
Denny said that North Carolina hopes to achieve 80 percent subscription to broadband services among its citizens in the next few years. Besides GREAT, the state’s American Rescue Plan–funded broadband programming includes the Stop Gap Solutions program, which provides targeted solutions such as satellite coverage to hard-to-reach locations. It also includes a broadband mapping initiative and a $50 million digital literacy effort.
In addition to current funding programs, Denny expects North Carolina to be the recipient of more than $800 million in upcoming Broadband Equity, Access, and Deployment program grants. He said that the state plans to funnel BEAD moneys into existing programs that have proven themselves effective.
NTIA Middle Mile Director Stresses Need for Infrastructure to Withstand Climate Events
The director of the middle mile program said applicants must show “climate resilience” to get funding.
WASHINGTON, September 8, 2022 – The director of the National Telecommunications and Information Administration’s middle mile program on Wednesday stressed the importance of ensuring projects can withstand natural events, such as storms, to get funding from its $1 billion program.
Sarah Bleau said Wednesday on a Broadband Breakfast Live Online event that – despite the Infrastructure, Investment and Jobs Act not mentioning climate resilience, the notice of funding opportunity for funds requires that a plan be in place for infrastructure resiliency against climate- and weather-related events.
Applications for funding are due September 30.
NTIA wants letter of credit, proof of area in need
Bleau also emphasized the need for applicants to show proof of an area to be served and to get a letter of credit, which will be requested by the agency from the bank. A letter of credit is a letter that’s addressed by a banker to a correspondent stating that the person named can draw upon the writer’s credit up to a chosen amount.
The letter of credit is intended to help the NTIA evaluate what level of risk the applicant is at. Bleau has had to address controversies surrounding the letter of credit during a virtual session on the program, saying it is “not so much protecting the money and so far as helping to determine and do a risk assessment.”
Bleau also fielded questions about extensions to apply to the program, saying there currently will be no extensions.
Among the other most-asked questions about the program, she said, include the use of matching funds to facilitate infrastructure grants. In almost all cases, applicants are required to provide a 30 percent match for grant proposals.
Wednesday, September 7, 2022, 12 Noon ET – Assessing the NTIA’s Middle Mile Grant Application Process, an Event Headlined by NTIA’s Sarah Bleau
Most of the attention from the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act has been focused on last-mile broadband deployment. But the deadline for IIJA’s Middle Mile grant program is coming up on September 30, 2022. In this special Broadband Breakfast Live Online session, we’ll begin with a brief headline presentation by Sarah Bleau, Middle Mile Program Director at the National Telecommunications and Information Administration, speaking about the $1 billion program, how the agency is handling the program, and how Middle Mile grants will impact the $42.5 billion last-mile broadband program.
- Sarah Bleau, Middle Mile Program Director, National Telecommunications and Information Administration
- Doug Maglothin, Executive Director, Diamond States Network
- Mark Goldstein, President of the International Research Center
- Drew Clark (moderator), Editor and Publisher, Broadband Breakfast
- In ‘Office Hours’ Sessions, NTIA Addresses Questions of Middle Mile Grant Applicants, Broadband Breakfast, September 7, 2022
- NTIA announces Middle Mile ‘office hours’ to support program applications, Broadband.Money
Sarah Bleau (center) joined the National Telecommunications and Information Administration in February 2021 as the Middle Mile Program Director. She took on this leadership role for the Broadband Infrastructure Program in Fall 2021 and saw the program through to the award recommendations and announcements made in February 2022. Sarah has extensive industry experience from spending the better part of her career buying, building, and selling fiber networks Sarah holds a master’s degree in business administration from the Illinois Institute of Technology.
Doug Maglothin (left) is presently serving as the lead on the Diamond State Networks middle mile project which is the largest and fastest networks of its kind in all of Arkansas. Founded by electric cooperatives, DSN’s goal is to make Arkansas the most significantly connected state in the country by promoting fast and affordable broadband to every corner of the state. Working alongside the coops, Doug helped to develop Diamond State Networks from its inception in 2020 as a consultant by way of his firm, Leverage Broadband Strategies where he serves as a Partner and Chief Strategy Officer.
Mark Goldstein (right) is chairman of the Arizona Telecommunications & Information Council and president of the International Research Center.
Drew Clark (moderator, not pictured) is the Editor and Publisher of BroadbandBreakfast.com and a nationally-respected telecommunications attorney. Under the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009, he served as head of a State Broadband Initiative in Illinois. Now, in light of the 2021 Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act, Attorney Clark helps fiber-based and wireless clients secure funding, identify markets, broker infrastructure and operate in the public right of way. He is also the President of the Rural Telecommunications Congress.
Photo from the National Association of Counties
As with all Broadband Breakfast Live Online events, the FREE webcasts will take place at 12 Noon ET on Wednesday.
In ‘Office Hours’ Sessions, NTIA Addresses Questions of Middle Mile Grant Applicants
Sarah Bleau, Middle Mile Program Director at NTIA, reminded attendees that the Middle Mile program is not for last-mile grants.
WASHINGTON, September 7, 2022 – With the deadline for the application of Middle Mile grants three weeks away, the National Telecommunications and Information Administration has held six of 12 “office hours” question and answer sessions.
Among the questions raised by prospective applicants during these sessions include the use of in-kind contributions, the role of the Federal Communications Commission’s Form 477 in demonstrating broadband availability and speeds, what role anchor institutions play in middle mile projects, and addressing concerns about the required letter of credit.
In a Broadband Breakfast Live Online webcast on Wednesday, September 7, 2022, at 12 Noon ET, Sarah Bleau, middle mile program director at NTIA, will headline a discussion of “Evaluating the Middle Mile Grant Application Process.”
With $1 billion in funding under the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act, the Middle Program is among the smaller broadband funding measures offered by the NTIA. But with a September 30 deadline, it is one of the first programs available for award.
Unlike NTIA programs for last-mile broadband, or for state digital equity grants, Middle Mile grants are open to individual companies and institutions that apply. NTIA will receive the applicants directly. NTIA officials have been responding to these questions during “office hours” sessions held on most Tuesdays and Thursdays. See information about the 12 “office hours” sessions.
Role of the FCC’s Form 477
During one “office hours” discussion, NTIA officials addressed how applicants may use evidence of underrepresented and unrepresented people by drawing on broadband data available through the FCC’s Form 477.
The FCC’s Form 477 has been much-criticized and is headed for a revamp. On Friday, FCC Chairwoman Jessica Rosenworcel said that the agency is aiming for November to release the first draft of its new broadband map.
Rosenworcel, who previously said that the map is expected to emerge this fall, said in a note from the FCC that it has completed the first filing window for submitting “extensive location-by-location data” on broadband availability, after service providers were required by the agency to submit such data by September 1 – the day before the release of the note.
But because that new broadband data won’t be available until after the September 30 Middle Mile grant deadline, “office hours” panelists and presenters addressed how existing broadband data can at least provide basic information about locations and broadband speeds being provided at particular locations.
This can help applicants visualize the availability of broadband. And speaking at one of the sessions, Alec MacDonell, telecommunications systems specialist at the FCC, highlighted the Urban Rate Survey. It is a report published annually by the FCC compiling data on the fixed voice and broadband service rates being offered to consumers in urban areas.
In addition, MacDonell and others participating in the “office hours” have said that applicants for the middle mile grant program should pay careful attention to the role that anchor institutions – typically universities, schools and libraries – play in planning for an implementing middle mile grants.
Letter of credit and no last-mile funds
During multiple “office hours” sessions over the last three weeks, Sarah Bleau, Middle Mile Program Director at NTIA, reminded attendees that this program is only for middle mile grants. Last-mile projects will not be considered and are not eligible for funds.
Addressing controversies over the required letter of credit, Bleau said that the letter is issued as a guarantee for payments. financial transactions among two separate parties, usually not taking on any risk in the process.
“It’s not so much protecting the money and so far as helping to determine and do a risk assessment,” Bleau said.
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