digging ditches for broadband

As the National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA) gears up to administer the $42.5 billion BEAD rural broadband infrastructure funding program, NTIA Administrator Alan Davidson gave an update at a Washington, D.C. event today. The event was also webcast (and can be viewed below).

Among many broadband infrastructure funding topics discussed, Davidson seemed particularly upbeat about progress with the $1 billion middle mile program, which is a component of the larger $65 billion Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act (IIJA), which was signed into law late last year.

The $1 billion allocated in the IIJA for middle mile network deployments could be awarded in advance of the $42.5 billion for last mile networks, Davidson noted. The reason is that unlike with the BEAD rural broadband funding program, the middle mile program is not dependent on completion of the FCC broadband mapping project.

“We anticipate that program moving forward pretty fast,” Davidson said of the middle mile program. Noting that middle mile projects can enable last-mile projects such as those to be funded through the BEAD program, Davidson said, “the sequencing is quite lucky for us.”

NTIA cannot determine how much BEAD funding each state will receive until the FCC broadband mapping project is completed. That project, expected to be completed later this year, will determine the number of unserved locations in each state, which in turn will determine funding for the state.

State Engagement

NTIA is adopting a “customer service” mindset toward state broadband agencies that will be responsible for awarding funding to network operators in their states, said Davidson.

Asked what states should do to prepare for the program and in a nod to infomercials and telethons, Davidson joked that “operators are standing by” to take calls from the states.

The BEAD program is the largest component of the IIJA. The notice of funding opportunity (NOFO) for the BEAD program is due next month and while Davidson declined to provide details about it, he offered considerable insight on the program in today’s question-and-answer session with event sponsor Broadband.Money, which was moderated by Drew Clark of Broadband Breakfast Media.

NTIA Administrator Alan Davidson (left)

Open questions that will need to be addressed in the NOFO include how to define the low-cost broadband option that providers are required to offer, as well as requirements for consultation with local stakeholders, Davidson said. Both initiatives are required in the IIJA, but the act did not provide details about their implementation.

The act also states that broadband at speeds of at least 100/20 Mbps must be made available to all unserved locations in a state (defined as those lacking broadband at speeds of at least 25/3 Mbps) before funding can go toward bringing underserved areas lacking service at speeds above 100/20 Mbps up to that level.

This raises the question of how states should treat project areas that include both unserved and underserved locations. Davidson’s answer: “That gets to the complexity of the entire problem.”

He added, though, that the ultimate goal of the BEAD program is to get everyone in the U.S. to have access to 100/20 Mbps service.

“It’s an ambitious goal,” he said, adding that “We’re looking at it through that lens.”

The Matching Fund Requirement

The IIJA requirement for network operators to contribute 25% of a BEAD project’s cost is a floor, not a ceiling, according to Davidson. An individual state could require network operators to contribute more than 25% of project costs, he said.

Davidson noted that this may be a reasonable requirement, considering that much of the funding won in the Rural Digital Opportunity Fund (RDOF) auction is slated to go to companies that committed to covering 50% or more of project costs.

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