Massachusetts released a draft of its Broadband Equity, Access and Deployment initial proposal on November 13.
It was part of a wave of states and territories that began seeking public comment on their drafts in recent weeks, an effort to close the mandatory 30-day public comment period before the December 27 submission deadline. All 56 have now done so.
States will submit their proposals to the National Telecommunications and Information Administration, the agency tapped to oversee the program. The proposals come in two volumes: volume one details how states will ground-truth broadband coverage data, and volume two outlines states’ plans for administering grant programs with their BEAD funds.
The state is planning to adopt the NTIA’s model challenge process to accept and adjudicate claims of incorrect broadband data. The Federal Communications Commission’s largely provider-reported coverage map was used to allocate BEAD money, but is not considered accurate enough to determine which specific locations lack broadband.
Local governments, nonprofits, and broadband providers are able to submit those challenges on behalf of consumers under the model process.
The state is electing to accept speed tests as evidence in those challenges, provided they meet certain methodological requirements.
Massachusetts is also electing to use one of the NTIA’s optional modifications to the model process. The state’s broadband office will designate all homes and businesses receiving broadband from copper telephone lines as “underserved” – and thus eligible for BEAD-funded infrastructure. The move is an effort to replace older technology with the higher speed fiber-optic cable favored by the program.
The state will administer two optional challenge types the NTIA laid out: area and MDU challenges. States are not required to use these, but most have outlined plans to do so in their initial proposals.
An area challenge is initiated if six or more locations in a census block group challenge the same technology from the same provider with sufficient evidence. The provider is then required to show evidence they provide the reported service to every location in the census block group, or the entire area will be opened up to BEAD funds.
An MDU, or multiple dwelling unit, challenge is triggered when three units or 10 percent of the total units in an apartment building challenge a provider’s service. It again flips the burden of proof, requiring providers to prove they give the reported service for the entire building, not just units being challenged.
Massachusetts is planning to fund “non-deployment” projects immediately after approval of its initial proposal, rather than waiting to award infrastructure grants like most states. That’s because the state’s broadband office is “confident that the remaining coverage gaps for mass market residential and commercial service can be closed” with its $147 million in BEAD funding.
In fact, thanks to the state’s Gap Networks program, funded by the Treasury Department’s Capital Projects Fund, there may be “few or no” BEAD-eligible locations remaining by the time subgrantee selection begins, according to the initial proposal. If necessary, Massachusetts is planning up to three rounds of funding to secure projects in eligible areas.
Non-deployment projects are those that aim to address gaps in broadband adoption in ways other than building new infrastructure, like efforts to increase affordability or improve digital literacy.
Among those projects the state is planning are state-run alternatives to the Affordable Connectivity Program, the $14 billion broadband subsidy for low-income households set to dry up in April 2024, and expanding a local partnership program that provides a variety of digital literacy and education services to more areas of the state.
For the deployment projects it does fund with BEAD, Massachusetts will be using the NTIA’s updated financing guidance, which gives states more options to ensure the financial viability of a project. Issued on November 1, the new guidance makes room for performance bonds and reimbursement milestones. Those tie up less cash than the original requirement, a letter of credit for 25 percent of the project cost.
The agency made the change after months of pushback from advocates and lawmakers, who warned small providers could be edged out by the original rules.
The public comment period for Massachusetts’s BEAD initial proposal is open until December 15.