During a panel discussion at the NTCA RTIME event, taking place in Dallas this week, a panel of state broadband executives shared their views about the role of state broadband offices during this historic broadband funding cycle. The challenges are not insignificant.
“We’re a public start up,” said Veneeth Iyengar, executive director of broadband development for Louisiana, which really set the tone for the discussion among three state broadband office leaders. Joining Iyengar were Joshua Hildebrandt, director of broadband initiatives for Georgia and Chad Rupe, broadband program manager for Montana. Josh Seidemann of NTCA – The Rural Broadband Association moderated the ‘States in the Driver’s Seat’ panel.
The start up analogy is a good one, considering many of these state broadband offices didn’t exist a few months ago. Many states are forming them to help steer and manage the windfall of infrastructure funding flowing from the federal government.
State Broadband Funding
Programs like the American Rescue Plan Act are already awarding tens of millions of dollars or more to individual states, who in turn are allocating millions towards broadband projects. There is much more to come.
The Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act of 2021 (IIJA) will allocate $65 billion for broadband initiatives, with each state guaranteed at least $100 million. These state broadband offices are tasked with coordinating the receipt and distribution of these funds to worthy projects that will conceivably help expand broadband access, affordability, and digital equity.
Many of these state offices are remarkably small, considering the amount of money they will be expected to manage. Right now, they are 2- or 3-full time employee offices. Iyengar expects to grow the Louisiana office to 10 to 12 employees this year. He’s going to need the help.
These state offices are tackling complex issues including:
- Identifying the ‘broadband gaps’ in their respective states
- Developing accurate broadband maps
- Coordinating and championing more efficient permitting processes
- Rallying public and private stakeholders
- Addressing supply chain delays and skilled workforce deficits
That’s just the short list and not every state is ready or prepared, according to the panel.
“I’ve talked with several states, and I’m quite stunned at the poor planning and poor authorization levels that are going on, because they don’t realize this money is coming and [if] they’re not at least looking at it, they’re not going to be ready,” commented Rupe. “This group needs to be able to be forward looking and engaging the executive leadership in the state to make sure that that’s happening, and at the legislative level.”
State Level Broadband Maps
A key priority for these state broadband offices is determining where broadband is today and what is an accurate accounting of the unserved and underserved. That will be necessary key data to procure more funding from the IIJA than just the base minimum.
Louisiana hopes to have its map completed by Memorial Day, said Iyengar. The state broadband funding panel acknowledged that the FCC is leading the effort for a more accurate national broadband map, but they’re hoping the data they provide will be used to help develop that nationwide map.
“I’m very concerned that the [FCC] will take an authoritative approach on eligibility, and those maps, like most maps, will be dated, and they’ll potentially be wrong,” said Rupe. “The states if we have our own mapping systems set up, we have the, under the statute, supposed to be able to contest those types of situations on behalf of the folks that we represent within the state….and so I truly hope that they have some deference to what reality is closer to the ground than in DC.”
The panelists agreed that states do and should be working together to avoid ‘reinventing the wheel.’ The reality is there won’t be much time to get this right.
“The speed at which a lot of the money is expected to move and behave both federally and [at the] state [level] is going to require states like Louisiana to not necessarily reinvent the wheel, but to identify what’s happening in other states and then sort of retrofit it if we think it makes sense specific to a Louisiana environment,” said Iyengar. “As much as we can all get together, is always a good thing.”