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Broadband Offices Concerned About Uncertainty in Compliance with Federal Program Requirements

Minnesota’s broadband office is concerned about federal compliance in the wake of new federal funding.

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Photo of Diane Wells, left, by Andrew VonBank from the Minnesota House of Representatives

December 17, 2021­­ – State broadband officials are concerned about compliance with federal funding guidelines.

Diane Wells, director of Minnesota’s broadband deployment office said her state’s preparation for federal funding is an upcoming hurdle for her team.

“An upcoming challenge is just the uncertainty,” she said, in thinking about how Minnesota’s successful broadband programs “need to be tweaked” to comply with the federal programs and reporting requirements. “Previously we’ve always been funded with state funding” Wells said, so her office hasn’t experience with federal reporting requirements.

Minnesota’s broadband deployment office, housed within the state’s employment and economic development department, has run a state infrastructure grant program since 2014.  Using the state’s budget surplus, the office utilized between $11 million and $35 million for infrastructure funding.

The office distributes the money in single-round grants where applicants apply to be considered for fund matching. The state’s goal is to connect all state residents to at least one provider in their community for broadband access with 120 Megabits per second (Mpbs) download speeds and 25 Mpbs upload speeds.

Despite their progress in state funding, Minnesota’s broadband office is challenged by compliance with federal guidelines and couldn’t apply for funding without proper guidance. Wells said state citizens and internet providers are complaining about Minnesota’s inability to open a grant application round from July 2021.

The grants, funded by the U.S. Treasury’s Capital Projects Fund, were federally funded rather than using Minnesota’s traditional state-only grant funding. Wells said her broadband office “didn’t have guidance” on applying to the CPF until September. Hopefully, Wells says, the state will submit their application for two rounds of funding in 2022 to get back on track. “But that will be doubling down our capacity as well,” she added.

Wells said her office tries to keep up with all the federal funding opportunities. “We’re most familiar with the broadband funding in Minnesota, but we’re dealing with the governor’s office” to coordinate funding decisions, Wells said.

Reporter Justin Perkins is graduate of Howard University School of Law, with a focus on telecommunications and technology. He has in-house experience at the Federal Communications Commission, Comcast and NBC. He brings curiosity and insight to broadband news.

Funding

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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Funding

Digital Equity the Focus at NTIA’s Listening Session on Infrastructure, Investment and Jobs Act

Attendees questioned how digital equity progress can be measured and how underserved populations are educated on technology use.

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Moderator Adam Geisler, national tribal government liaison with the First Responder Network Authority

WASHINGTON, January 14, 2022 – Through the National Telecommunications and Information Administration’s efforts to hold listening sessions for the public to ask questions on grant programs provided by the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act, digital equity has emerged as a key concern.

In the second of five listening sessions, questioners emphasized digital equity issues for underserved communities such as Native tribes, proposing a digital equity scorecard to assess the effects of government programs in unconnected areas and suggesting implementation of further adult education programs to improve technological knowledge.

This specific session Wednesday sought input on:

  • Ways Broadband Equity, Access, and Deployment Program funds could be used to connect communities.
  • New ways IIJA programs could promote broadband affordability including how middle mile should be targeted to promote affordable last mile.
  • How the NTIA could ensure contact between states with tribal entities to promote broadband access and digital equity.

Another key focus among questioners was on logistics of broadband infrastructure builds.

Concerned broadband officials say there is a shortage of technicians to work on building infrastructure projects, and that funds should be used to support programs in technical schools that would train construction workers and bolster workforce numbers.

Additionally, there is concern over many project applications being considered overbuilding – building networks in areas with existing broadband infrastructure – and getting denied despite many broadband policy experts not actually considering them overbuilding.

Questioners at the session continued to push for more granular mapping that compiles data below the census block level as well as for more affordable middle mile.

Further, they emphasized that the NTIA must take steps to address challenges that smaller broadband networks and co-ops, which they say often provide better broadband service than larger networks, face in applying for funding due to being less skilled at completing applications than larger networks.

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