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Broadband Champions Necessary to Combat Obstacles and Drive Public Financing, Panelists Say

“Some communities are way ahead of others,” Illinois Broadband Office Director Matt Schmit said about quest for IIJA funds.

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Photo Matt Schmit (left on screen), moderator Benjamin Kahn (left), Roger Timmerman and Tom Coverick by Drew Clark

HOUSTON, May 4, 2022 – Those planning to utilize public funding opportunities need to communicate with all levels of stakeholders and worthwhile partnerships to make the most of Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act funding.

Financing plans live or die by stakeholder involvement, said Tom Coverick, Keybanc Capital Markets managing director.

“Every project needs a champion,” he said here during Broadband Breakfast’s Digital Infrastructure Investment mini-conference at Broadband Communities Summit on Monday. “We are looking at rising interest rates and [rising] costs of labor. Without the local champions, these local projects would have a very difficult time moving forward.”

“The reality is those champions in the local areas will know everyone who has to get involved, and if they do not know, they will find out how it is pretty quickly,” Coverick said.

“Some communities are way ahead of others,” Illinois Broadband Office Director Matt Schmit said. “There are a lot of really great models around the country that have [created] community engagement and outreach programs.”

Schmit used Illinois’ “Accelerate Illinois” partnership between the state and Heartland Forward. He explained how this program helped guide communities that have committed to securing public funding for broadband but may not have concrete goals or a vision of how to achieve them.

“[These communities] have not had that inclusive conversation at the community level, or they may not exactly know how to put together a grant application, or [how to] find the ideal private provider partner.”

Schmit also emphasized the importance of communication, and emphasized a three-legged stool of access, adoption and use. “Being available [to community leaders – to that local champion –] is really important,” Schmit said. “This is going to make or break so much of our investment in the US.”

California Emerging Technology Fund CEO Sunne Wright McPeak said that communication needs to be encouraged from all stakeholders, top to bottom. She spoke particularly about state leaders informing local community leaders about opportunities available to them through grant funding.

Some of this coordination has helped to drive middle-mile investments to connect qualifying communities, she said.

“Systematically reaching out to the public agencies that have to approve projects and give the permitting, and those that will develop the project and apply for the funding [is critical.” McPeak said.

“The folks who really are on the ground on adoption are what we call the trusted messengers,” she added. “They are the community-based organizations that can do the outreach – in language and culture – and increase that take-rate.”

“Where there is a will, there is a way,” said UTOPIA Fiber CEO Roger Timmerman. “If you have elected officials or groups or community leaders and you want to solve the broadband problem in your area, you need to organize that effort and come up with good partners.”

Information about the presentations made during the “Public Financing” panel are available at the Digital Infrastructure Investment page.

Infrastructure

Sen. Bennet Says Coloradans’ Complaints About Poor Broadband Drove Passage of Infrastructure Act

Expanding access to broadband has been at the top of many of Colorado’s local, state and federal legislators’ agendas.

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Photo of Michael Bennet from August 2019 by Gage Skidmore used with permission

KEYSTONE, Colorado, May 24, 2022 – The COVID-19 pandemic highlighted the need for Coloradans to get better broadband, and the reactions that people felt as a result of their poor experiences with broadband motivated Sen. Michael Bennet, D-Colo., to craft legislation that ultimately led the passage of the bipartisan infrastructure legislation.

Speaking at the Mountain Connect conference here, Bennet traced the history of how grass-roots reactions to the problems of poor broadband translated into legislation.

”Wherever I went in the state, whether it was rural, suburban, or urban, broadband kept coming up again and again,” Bennet recounted. “People constantly told me that broadband was too slow or too expensive to be of much use to their family, their farm, or their small business.”

A few months into the pandemic, he introduced the Broadband Reform and Investment to Drive Growth in the Economy (BRIDGE) Act, a piece of legislation that would have allocated $40 billion in federal funds to states, Tribal Governments, and U.S. Territories.

Although the BRIDGE Act did not pass the 117th Congress, the language of the bill had a major influence on federal broadband policy that followed it, including the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act, which passed the Senate in August and the House in November. The measure was signed by President Biden on November 15, 2021. It led to the National Telecommunications and Information Administration’s Broadband, Equity, Access and Deployment Program, the details of which were released on May 13.

BRIDGE Act a precursor to IIJA

The BRIDGE Act served as a precursor to the BEAD program in two regards. First, it put states in the driver’s seat to disperse federal funds in the place of federal agencies, under the theory that states have the best understanding of their surrounding communities’ needs.

Second, the BRIDGE measure significantly raised broadband speed standards, more than quadrupling the FCC’s long-held 25 Megabits per second (Mbps) download and 3 Mbps upload standard by requiring that projects funded under the Act deliver no less than 100 Mbps symmetrical broadband connections.

IIJA upped the dollars spent on broadband by the federal government, but it dropped the speed requirements to 100 Mbps down and 25 Mbps up.

Other Colorado-focused broadband measures

Colorado state legislators are also active in other broadband measures, as outlined by Brandy Reitter, the executive director of the Colorado Broadband Office, and others speaking at the conference.

Earlier this year, Gov. Jared Polis issued a state executive order directing the Colorado Broadband Office to develop a strategic plan to connect 99% of Colorado households to high-speed Internet access by 2027.

Colorado’s most recent legislative session saw increased activity in the broadband space, with much of the legislation passed aimed at expanding broadband initiatives across the state in order to achieve the governor’s goals.

One key piece of legislation was House Bill 21-1289, which invested $75 million dollars of the state’s American Rescue Plan funds toward digital inclusion programs. Of that allocation, $35 million dollars went toward digital inclusion projects, including $20 million allocated to the Southern Ute Mountain Tribes; $15 million was invested in telehealth and telemedicine; and $35 million was allocated to a broadband stimulus grant program, to which ISPs and other providers can apply to access funding.

The final $5 million of the funding was allocated to the Colorado Department of Local Affairs for the Digital Connectivity Program, which communities interested in building middle-mile broadband can access.

Senate Bill 21-60 allocated an additional $5 million to digital inclusion grant programs, managed by the Office of eHealth Innovation, and specifically set aside funding to offer discounts of up to 50% to Coloradans with telemedicine bills.

House Bill 22-83 set the framework for the Colorado Department of Transportation to put systems in place for permitting and use of rights-of-way.

Finally, House Bill 22-1306 shortened the time frame the Colorado Broadband Office reviews grants in from a 60-day timeframe to a 45-day time frame. This bill helps mitigate supply chain issues, as the price of supplies can often escalate by 10 to 20% within an additional 15 days.

Reitter said that these measures help state of Colorado to participate actively in every federal funding program possible,.

The state plans to take advantage of the NTIA’s Broadband, Equity, Access and Deployment Program, and hopes to receive up to $700 million in funding from the program, based on data from the Colorado Broadband Office.

“We think this is a real opportunity to keep continuing the investment in broadband,” Reiter said of the BEAD program.

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Funding

Broadband Notice of Funding Availability Seeks to Balance Requirements with Flexibility

Alan Davidson says NOFO requires that grant recipients offer both low-cost service options and middle-class affordability plans.

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Photo of Alan Davidson at press conference after his remarks at Mountain Connect by Drew Clark

KEYSTONE, Colorado, May 24, 2022 – The National Telecommunications and Information Administration is attempting  to balance stakeholder demands to ensure new entrants to the broadband marketplace, while making certain the agency is a good shepherd of the federal funds, the administrator of the U.S. Department of Commerce agency said here Tuesday.

Alan Davidson, the assistant secretary of Commerce responsible for the agency that is spending the lion’s share of federal broadband money, said that NTIA will consider affordability to be an important consideration in making awards.

In a discussion with Broadband Breakfast editor and publisher Drew Clark, the pair reviewed the NTIA’s guidelines governing three new broadband grant programs that will see more than $45 billion in federal funding dispersed over the next few years.

Three Notices of Funding Opportunity were released on May 13, 2022. The largest one is for the Broadband Equity, Access, and Deployment program, a $42.5-billion-dollar program aimed at expanding last-mile, high-speed Internet access across the United States.

Davidson referred to the released NOFO as the “starting gun” signaling for states to begin the sprint toward making funding and infrastructure deployment plans to connect local unserved and underserved communities to futureproof Internet connections.

Less than a week since the release of the notices, 25 states and territories have already submitted Letters of Intent to participate in the program, with 35 states and territories stating they intend to submit an initial proposal to access a share of the federal funding by the July 18, 2022, deadline.

Process for states to apply

The NOFO requires that grant recipients offer both low-cost service options and middle-class affordability plans over the resulting infrastructure. The NOFO offers states examples of different affordability plans to model, while also giving states the flexibility to define what can be deemed “affordable” within their borders.

Further, BEAD requires robust stakeholder engagement, and gives preference to grant applicants pursuing public-private partnerships, as well as those which demonstrate they have coordinated with local and Tribal Governments, and community-based organizations, in the creation of their applications.

In an effort to bolster economic development and the creation of new jobs within the United States, the NOFO includes a “Buy America” statute, which requires grant recipients purchase 55% of all network components being used from American manufacturers. During the keynote, Davidson reiterated that the NTIA will prioritize the deployment of fiber infrastructure over other technologies, including cable, DSL, and satellite.

Davidson explained that increased state and federal oversight should be expected to ensure federal broadband funds go to the localities where they are most needed. Oversight requirements are largely spelled out in the statute, but grant recipients can expect more post-award reporting requirements than have been necessitated by previous federal programs.

Davidson’s presentation raised some questions surrounding well-known industry supply chain issues, the shortage of fiber technicians nationally, and the issue of BEAD grant dollars being considered taxable income. Davidson replied to the raised concerns stating that the NTIA is eager to hear about stakeholder’s pain points, and that he predicts there will be an ongoing process of working with states on these issues.

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Funding

Sean Gonsalves: NTIA Assistant Secretary Alan Davidson Dishes on BEAD at Mountain Connect 2022

The NTIA will press states to not lock out publicly-owned broadband project. If they do, they must disclose why.

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Mountain Connect 2022 got a big kick off this morning in Keystone, Colorado with a Q&A discussion between National Telecommunications and Information Administration Assistant Secretary Alan Davidson and Broadband Breakfast CEO, Editor and Publisher Drew Clark.

Davidson provided a broad overview of the newly released Notice of Funding Opportunity for the $42.5 billion Broadband Equity Access & Deployment program, which set the table for the multitude of break-out sessions that attracted a who’s who of broadband providers, vendors, policy-makers and vendors.

Under the BEAD program, each of the 50 states will be eligible to receive a minimum of $100 million to expand high-speed Internet access, though most states will receive hundreds of millions more as additional funding will be allocated to states based on a formula that takes into account how many unserved households are in each state.

Most states on board for BEAD

Davidson said that 25 states have already submitted their Letter of Intent to seek BEAD funding. In all, 35 states have indicated they will also participate in the program so far as NTIA works with the other 15 states and territories to encourage them to take advantage of the largest ever federal investment in broadband.

While Davidson touted the unprecedented opportunity now being made available to states to close the digital divide, Clark did probe him on several concerns around the requirements of the BEAD application process that a number of broadband advocates and small- to midsize Internet Service Providers have raised since the NOFO was released on May 13.

One question in particular Clark raised was the letter of credit requirement that subgrantees must acquire to qualify for funding. A number of ISPs and local officials interested in municipal broadband projects are saying the requirement is onerous and may prove to be a disincentive for new entrants into the broadband market now dominated by the big monopoly ISPs.

Davidson noted his office has been hearing those concerns and that the NTIA may adjust the rules based on that feedback.

NTIA will encourage states to include publicly-owned networks

We also had a chance to ask Davidson a question: Would states with preemption laws that prevent or erect barriers to municipalities, cooperatives, nonprofits and other public entities from accessing BEAD funds be disqualified from the BEAD program?

Davidson said the NTIA will press states to not lock out publicly-owned broadband projects and if they propose to do so they must disclose why. But, he stopped short of saying that states with such preemption laws would be disqualified from participating in the BEAD program.

However, Davidson and Clark both, pointed to the specific language in the NOFO that says:

  • NTIA strongly encourages Eligible Entities (states) to waive all such (preemption) laws for purposes of the Program. If an Eligible Entity does not do so, the Eligible Entity must identify all such laws in its Initial Proposal and describe how the laws will be applied in connection with the competition for subgrants. Such Eligible Entity must, in its Final Proposal, disclose each unsuccessful application affected by such laws and describe how those laws impacted the decision to deny the application.

Internet for all?

While Davidson did not explicitly say NTIA would wholeheartedly accept BEAD applications from states with preemptions laws that lock out public sector providers, it seems clear the NTIA will not deny BEAD funds to states with preemption laws that violate both the letter and spirit of the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act (IIJA), which authorized the BEAD program.

The BEAD NOFO and Davidson’s remarks were a major topic of discussion at the dozens of breakout sessions held later in the day, covering everything from funding new broadband investments and community development to community broadband case studies and emerging technologies.

Multiple NTIA officials claimed BEAD is intended to connect all Americans and, in fact, the Biden admininstration calls it the Internet for All intiative. However, neither Congress nor the Biden administration have a plan to ensure all low-income urban households are connected.

The three-day conference will conclude on Wednesday with that final day being kicked-off by a Q&A with U.S. Sen. John Hickenlooper.

Watch our Connect This! livesteam discussing the implications of the BEAD NOFO here.

This article originally appeared on the Institute for Local Self Reliance’s Municipal Broadband project on May 24, 2022, and is reprinted with permission.

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