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NTIA released the eagerly awaited notice of funding opportunity (NOFO) for the $42.5 billion Broadband Equity, Access and Deployment (BEAD) program early this morning. Rules for the program call for individual states to establish selection criteria and other rules for awarding funding, but those rules must conform to guidelines established by NTIA in the NOFO.

Among those rules: “Priority” broadband projects are those that will “provision service via end-to-end fiber-optic facilities to each end-user premises.” States are directed to award BEAD funding for an area to priority projects unless the cost per location exceeds the extremely high cost per location threshold or for “other valid reasons,” subject to NTIA approval.

“End-to-end fiber networks can be updated by replacing equipment attached to the ends of the fiber-optic facilities, allowing for quick and relatively inexpensive network scaling as compared to other technologies,” wrote NTIA in the NOFO. “Moreover, new fiber deployments will facilitate the deployment and growth of 5G and other advanced wireless services, which rely extensively on fiber for essential backhaul.”

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The NTIA NOFO also establishes a category called “reliable broadband service,” which in addition to fiber broadband, includes cable modem/hybrid fiber coax technology, digital subscriber line (DSL) and fixed wireless using entirely licensed spectrum or a hybrid of licensed and unlicensed spectrum. Satellite broadband and fixed wireless relying entirely on unlicensed spectrum are not considered reliable technologies.

Projects involving “reliable” broadband other than fiber could be eligible for funding for an area if there are no fiber broadband applications for the area. And technologies not deemed “reliable” are an option for extremely high-cost areas.

The BEAD Funding Notice

The BEAD program, which was created in the infrastructure act, aims to make broadband available to all unserved locations in the U.S., with unserved areas defined as those lacking reliable broadband at speeds of at least 25 Mbps downstream and 3 Mbps upstream. If funding has been awarded for all unserved locations in a state, the state can direct funding toward underserved locations, defined as those lacking 100/20 Mbps service.

Some of the rules for the BEAD program described in the NOFO appear to be aimed at ensuring that deployment goals are met:

  • An unserved or underserved project can be as small as a single unserved or underserved location
  • If a state does not receive BEAD funding applications for some areas, the state may engage with existing providers or others to find providers willing to build out those areas. In that scenario, the state may consider inducements such as use of state funding toward matching fund requirements.

The NOFO leaves it up to individual states to determine how to define project areas for the purpose of soliciting proposals. Options might include per census block, per town, or per county or other geographic level, the NOFO states.

InternetForAll.gov

Selection Criteria for Fiber Projects

States also have considerable leeway in determining selection criteria in making awards in areas where multiple companies are competing for funding. The states must follow certain rules in awarding funding in those situations, however.

In cases where there is more than one funding application for priority (i.e., fiber) broadband for an area, the most important criteria are:

  • The provider must, absent a waiver, cover no less than 25% of the project cost
  • Providers committing to provide the most affordable total price to the customer for symmetrical gigabit service should be prioritized
  • Providers demonstrating compliance with federal labor and employment laws or that have no track record but commit to doing so should be prioritized

The NOFO also lays out rules for “secondary criterion” in making awards, including:

  • Prioritizing providers that commit to completing deployments in advance of the four-year deadline
  • NTIA “encourages” states to prioritize providers that commit to advancing equitable workforce development and job quality objectives and to prioritize open access projects and projects involving local and tribal coordination

Selection Criteria for Other Reliable Broadband Projects

There are similar but slightly different rules for project selection in cases where there are no applications for fiber broadband for an area but there are multiple applications for some other type of “reliable” broadband. The most important criteria are:

  • The amount of funding requested
  • The provider’s commitment to provide the most affordable total price to the customer for 100/20 Mbps service
  • Providers demonstrating compliance with federal labor and employment laws or that have no track record but commit to doing so should be prioritized

Secondary award criteria include:

  • Speed to deployment
  • Network speed and other technical capabilities, including use of more scalable technologies and whose capital assets have longer useable lives
  • Here, too, NTIA encourages states to prioritize providers that commit to advancing equitable workforce development and job quality objectives and to prioritize open access projects and projects involving local and tribal coordination

Another open issue involving the BEAD program that is addressed in the NOFO: The state can seek proposals to serve unserved and underserved locations (as well as third-level priority community anchor institutions) collectively or separately.  However, funding cannot be made available for underserved locations unless all unserved locations in the state are addressed.

Additional information about BEAD program rules can be found in the full 98-page BEAD funding notice at this link. A new website, InternetForAll.gov is a central location for the entire broadband infrastructure program.

This is a developing story. Look for more coverage from Telecompetitor.

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