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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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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.

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

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.

Funding

Decades-Old Legislation Can Play Supplement to Federal Broadband Infrastructure Money

The Community Reinvestment Act was expanded to include broadband investments in 2016.

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Photo of Jordana Barton-Garcia (far right)

CLEVELAND, June 27, 2022 – A decades-old piece of legislation can play an important and supplemental role to federal grants for broadband infrastructure, said panelists at the Pew Charitable Trust Broadband Access Summit Wednesday.

The Community Reinvestment Act was passed in 1977 to address redlining – the practice of denying financial services to individuals or groups based on where they are located, often along racial or soci-economic lines. The law encourages banks to make community development loans and investments in low- and moderate-income communities, rural, and tribal communities.

The legislation expanded to include investments in broadband infrastructure in 2016, after broadband was deemed an essential community service, said Jordana Barton-Garcia, principal of the social enterprise at Barton-Garcia Advisors. That means that it could play a key role in filling some of the broadband gaps, she said, as the federal government moves to distribute billions to the states under the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act.

In response to the pandemic, banks can now qualify to receive CRA credit for broadband deployment activities, said Barton-Garcia. Activities include loans, investments, and services that support digital inclusion or affordability programs.

Banks receive CRA credit for investing in community development projects and are reviewed on their CRA performance every three years. Their scores are open to the general public. If the bank receives a negative rating, it may prevent the bank from opening new branches and the bank will be expected to correct the rating.

Currently, the Federal Reserve is seeking comments on a joint agency proposal to strengthen and modernize CRA regulations.

A report published by the Federal Reserve Bank of Dallas in 2016 laid the groundwork for broadband to be included under the CRA. “Under the CRA, infrastructure investment includes facilitating the construction, expansion, improvement, maintenance or operation of essential infrastructure…  broadband is now a basic infrastructure needed in all communities.”

The CRA also includes workforce development investments, digital literacy projects, and technical assistance for small businesses.

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Funding

Researching the Impact of Digital Equity Funding Starts With Community Collaboration

Understanding the funding impact will ‘begin with the NTIA’s mandate to work with community partners.’

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Photo of Fallon Wilson

CLEVELAND, June 23, 2022 – Formulating research questions and making data readily accessible will contribute to the impact of federal and state digital equity funding, said experts speaking at the Pew Charitable Trusts’ Broadband Access Summit Wednesday.

It is essential to “formulate the research questions with communities” so that researchers will understand what is of interest and importance to the residents and local leaders, said Nicole Marwell from the University of Chicago,

Marwell said it is “critical” for researchers to consider how to “ask questions that bring answers that are more relevant for the community partners and then for [researchers] to try and figure out a way to make that interesting for a research audience.”

“We can demystify research,” said Fallon Wilson of the #BlackTechFutures Research Institute, speaking on how researchers can effectively work with community members. When data looks friendly to local leaders, they can go directly to their state broadband offices and advocate for their specific needs in specific areas.

“The best advocates are the people who advocate for themselves,” said Wilson.

Our role as researchers can play is to make data digestible for the non-academic, said Hernan Galperin of the University of Southern California.

The National Telecommunications and Information Administration requires states to work with community leaders and partners for the funds distributed by the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act.

Wilson praised this mandate, saying that understanding the funding impact will “begin with the NTIA’s mandate to work with community partners.”

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Funding

BEAD Program Initiative Should Utilize Analysis of Affordable Connectivity Program Enrollment

Analyzing ACP enrollment can help the BEAD program solve the ‘persisting gap between deployment and subscription.’

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Photo of John Horrigan

WASHINGTON, June 16, 2022 – The National Telecommunications and Information Administration should utilize adoption data from the Affordable Connectivity Program to maximize the effectiveness of its $42.5-billion infrastructure program, according to a broadband adoption expert.

“If the federal government’s investments in broadband connectivity are to be effective, different programmatic pieces must work together,” said John Horrigan, Benton Senior Fellow and expert on technology adoption and digital inclusion, in a blog post Thursday.

Analyzing the enrollment data of the Federal Communications Commission’s ACP can help the Broadband Equity, Access and Deployment program — a $42.5 billion fund for infrastructure to be handed to the states — solve the “persisting gap between deployment and subscription” in three ways, said Horrigan.

First, examining ACP enrollment in zip codes can help target which areas within cities are unaware of ACP. Second, understanding where ACP enrollment is over-performing can “launch productive inquiry into models that may be effective – and replicable.” Third, ACP enrollment findings can help structure community outreach initiatives for digital inclusion.

“The National Telecommunications and Information Administration has emphasized that a key goal of BEAD investments in digital equity,” said Horrigan. “State planners will need all the tools they can find to work toward that goal – and analysis of ACP performance is one such tool.”

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