NEW ORLEANS, May 17, 2023 – Industry leaders disagreed on whether the National Telecommunication and Information Administration’s $1 billion Middle Mile program will be enough to deploy all the necessary infrastructure to connect Americans, speaking at a Broadband Breakfast event at the Connect (X) conference on May 10.
Although the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act allocates only $1 billion to middle mile broadband deployment, other federal investments will address the funding gaps, said Telecommunications Industry Association Vice President of Government Affairs Melissa Newman.
Applications for the Middle Mile program were due on September 30, 2022. NTIA has not yet announced the winners, but agency officials have said that they will do so this Spring, or by June 21, 2023.
The NTIA is set to announce the amount of $42.5 billion funds that it will award to each state through the Broadband Equity, Access and Deployment program by June 30, 2023. The money will be used to connect unserved and underserved homes through “last mile” services, or broadband connections to the home.
But, in addition to the $1 billion through the Middle Mile program, the BEAD program can make up for the gaps in middle mile deployment if $1 billion proves inadequate.
Middle mile is the infrastructure that runs between communities and connects the internet backbone to last mile builds. Last mile connections then hook up homes and businesses.
Will $1 billion be enough?
There is simply not enough money in the Middle Mile program, said Drew Colbow, director of operational strategy at wireless and fiber infrastructure provider Crown Castle. The ideal investment in middle mile would be between up to $7 billion, he said.
Lawmakers in California invested an additional $3.25 billion in middle mile investments in July of 2021 to its open access, state-owned middle mile network. In fact, most of the American Rescue Plan Act funds in California went to the state’s middle mile initiative, said Joshua Broder, CEO of telecommunications consultant and fiber construction company Tilson.
Federal agencies have a history in investing in middle mile, said panelists. The Broadband Technology Opportunities Program, a key part of the $7.2 billion in federal investment under the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009, invested over the bulk of its money into more than 1,600 miles of middle mile infrastructure.
Mapping middle mile investment may prove to be a challenge, panelists said. Although the NTIA will release the names and locations of its awardees, identifying the locations of other, privately-funding middle mile projects may be more difficult.
State broadband officials may be able to help in coordinating between last-mile and middle-mile project builders, said Veneeth Iyengar, Executive Director of ConnectLA, the state broadband office for Louisiana.
Also participating on the panel was Paul Challoner, vice president for network product solutions at Ericsson, who addressed the critical importance of bringing middle mile deployments to cell towers.