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Governors Discuss Infrastructure Bill Spending at Summit

Leaders addressed strategies and importance of private spending.

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From left to right: Jane Garvey, Tom Wolf, Lourdes Leon Guerrero, John Bel Edwards, Larry Hogan

ANNAPOLIS, December 2, 2021 – Governors from some states gathered in Annapolis, Maryland, to discuss how they would use the billions in funding coming from the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act.

The three-day National Governor’s Association Infrastructure Summit, a large part of which was closed off to media, hosted a panel discussion on Tuesday. The panel included Louisiana Democratic Governor John Bel Edwards, Guam Democratic Governor Lourdes Leon Guerrero, Maryland Republican Governor Larry Hogan, and Pennsylvania Democratic Governor Tom Wolf.

Edwards said that once Louisiana had received money from the infrastructure bill – signed into law in mid-November that would provide a minimum of $100 million to the states – the changes to broadband would be drastic. “We will be able to address [access and the digital divide] to a degree that was not be possible before.

“If there is a home or business [in Louisiana] without high-speed internet by 2029, it is because they do not want it,” Edwards said. He explained that because Louisiana identified the shortcomings in its broadband infrastructure and began laying the groundwork to improve it years ago, the state is more well equipped to take advantage of the funding that will come with the IIJA.

In early 2020, Edwards announced his “Broadband for Everyone in Louisiana” plan that outlined coverage priority areas, the guiding principles, and goals for the state’s approach to improved broadband connectivity. The state broadband office, Connect L.A., was formed to help put the plan into action.

As part of the state’s initiative to bridge the digital divide, Edwards’ administration created Louisiana’s Grant Unserved Municipalities Broadband Opportunities program, or GUMBO, to help underserved and unserved areas apply for federal funding for broadband projects.

Need for private investment

Wolf pointed to actions Pennsylvania is taking to ensure that funds are not squandered. “[The IIJA] is not an infinite amount of money and it is not nearly what our engineers say we need,” he said. To get the most out of the funding they receive, Wolf recommended that states create centralized infrastructure banks to only allocate money to approved projects and avoid both literal and figurative “bridges to nowhere.”

“Private investment is also critically important,” Hogan said. Indeed, all the governors sharing the stage encouraged states to explore public-private efforts. Edwards said he was hopeful that the IIJA would not tie states’ hands, preventing states from utilizing such models. “We need an approach that has the flexibility to work for us,” he said. “I hope the rules are not written in a way that requires us to do all of this ourselves [without private investment].”

The purpose of this gathering is to allow governors, their secretaries, and staff to meet, collaborate, and share their experiences to help states partner for regional infrastructure projects, prioritize projects, and learn to obtain the necessary resources from the federal government to complete said projects.

Hogan presented the opening keynote and participated in some of the first day’s events. Bipartisanship was one of the focal points of the summit, and Hogan hammered on it during his keynote.

“A lot of conventional wisdom was that a federal infrastructure bill could not be in a bipartisan way,” he said. Hogan said that the collaborative work governors did on a state and regional level proved this “wisdom” to be false, stating, “the nation’s governors will continue to lead the way.”

Waiting on the federal government

Hogan said that while the money in the IIJA will be “transformational,” there are still a considerable number of unknowns. “We are still waiting for guidance from the federal government,” he said. As it stands now, he said there is no precise timeline for when the funds will be dispensed or if certain monies will have rigid, unknown requirements that could hold up the process. “The devil is in the details,” said Hogan.

Maryland Governor Larry Hogan

“We will find a way to make use of every penny we receive,” he added, but said it was still unclear how much money the state would get or, where it could be used, and when the state would get it.

Hogan said Maryland’s efforts would be concentrated on repairing and modernizing infrastructure, while also devising new ways to streamline the deployment of future projects.

The NGA summit runs through December 2 and covers topics such as broadband, freight transportation, green infrastructure and supply chain issues.

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.

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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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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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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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