WASHINGTON, February 9, 2024 – Internet service provider representatives urged state broadband offices receiving funding from the Broadband, Equity, Access and Deployment program to prioritize labor and workforce development initiatives, noting this requirement is outlined multiple times in the program’s notice of funding opportunity.
The representatives called for states to be proactive in identifying such issues that could delay the deployment of broadband infrastructure funded by the BEAD program, during a USTelecom Association event held Wednesday.
"We’ve got right-of-way issues, permits, permissions, even locating underground facilities for utilities, and having the right staffing to be able to process those permits in localities is so critical,” emphasized Pamela Sherwood, vice president of regulatory compliance at the ISP BrightSpeed.
Sherwood said finding experienced individuals to build networks can be extremely difficult, particularly in rural areas.
“Just look at the number of RDOF defaults we’ve experienced,” Sherwood said, referring to the controversial Rural Digital Opportunity Fund by the FCC in 2020. If we don’t address workforce issues then certain regions will be “out of luck to get the benefit of the broadband deployment” funded by BEAD, she said.
The industry experts called for state broadband grant offices to actively develop best practices to enhance workforce skills, and to find methods to streamline permitting and rights-of-way procedures, urging states to adopt strategies seen in states like Louisiana and Virginia.
Louisiana's method involves soliciting provider input first, to adjust if certain build areas pose challenges like right-of-way or waterway issues.
Virginia's approach entails strategically planning builds in areas that coincide with expected provider coverage. These states were praised for effectively leveraging existing infrastructure to maximize federal funds.
New Jersey Broadband Office director Valarry Bullard, speaking during the event, said the office’s workforce development working group is making preparations to address workforce gaps in anticipation of receiving $263.7 million in funding to expand broadband infrastructure throughout rural regions in the northwest and southeast corners of the state.
Drawing on her own experience, Kristi Westbrook, CEO of consultancy CTC, said providers may need to explore innovative approaches to build-outs, including handling more tasks in-house, rather than relying solely on outsourcing for tasks like construction or fiber splicing.
Westbrook noted that many construction contractors are already overwhelmed with work due to Enhanced A-CAM requirements, which mandate carriers take actions to avoid duplicating broadband funding from federal programs.
Expressing doubt about the capacity of regulatory offices to expedite project approvals adequately to meet build-out deadlines, Westbrook stated, "I truly believe that these offices lack the necessary staff. I'm uncertain about the realistic feasibility of obtaining all the required licenses from a workforce perspective.”
Katharine Saunders, vice president and deputy general counsel for Verizon, advocated for promoting workforce participation, emphasizing the benefits of having a readily available workforce for construction projects.
Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary and Deputy Administrator of NTIA Sarah Morris highlighted an increase in information sharing among government agencies to ensure the federal funding reaches areas where it is most needed. NTIA is collaborating closely with the FCC, USDA, and Treasury Department to track the deployment of federal funding.