digging ditches for broadband

The NTIA is seeking input on implementing three broadband funding programs that were established in the infrastructure bill signed into law in November.

In a 14-page request for comment (RFC), NTIA asks for input on 36 questions pertaining to the Broadband Equity, Access and Deployment (BEAD) rural infrastructure program, the Middle-Mile program and the Digital Equity Planning Grant program. In this post, we highlight the questions of greatest importance to Telecompetitor’s service provider readers.

First, some background.

Infrastructure Bill Broadband Programs

The BEAD program, which has a budget of $42.5 billion, is designed to cover some of the costs of deploying broadband to unserved rural areas. The Middle-Mile program, which has a $1 billion budget, will help fund the construction of “broadband infrastructure that does not connect directly to an end-user location.”

The Digital Equity Planning Grant program, which has a $60 million budget, is part of a broader $2.75 billion digital equity program that was established in the infrastructure bill. The digital equity programs aim to promote meaningful adoption and use of broadband services across targeted populations, including low-income households and others.

Other elements of the digital equity program are the State Digital Equity Capacity Grant program and the Digital Equity Competitive Grant program. NTIA said it will release another RFC in the future to address the State Equity Capacity Grant program and Digital Equity Competitive Grant program.

The infrastructure act calls for BEAD program and State Digital Equity Capacity Grant funding to be allocated to the states for dispersion to service providers. The states will be responsible for funding decisions, within guidelines detailed by NTIA and within the infrastructure act.

NTIA will make funding decisions for the Middle-Mile program and the Digital Equity Competitive Grant program.

NTIA RFC Questions

Perhaps the most important question that NTIA asks in the new RFC is “How should NTIA assess a state’s award process?”

Apparently, the agency has not shut the door on the possibility of a state using a reverse auction to award funding, as the RFC asks, “Are there specific types of competitive subgrant processes that should be presumed eligible (e.g., publicly released requests for proposals and reverse auctions)?”

This is noteworthy because reverse auctions seemed to fall out of favor with policymakers when the FCC received considerable criticism regarding the Rural Digital Opportunity Fund (RDOF) reverse auction. Such auctions award funding for an area to the provider that is committed to deploying service for the lowest level of support.

Other important questions that NTIA asks that could pertain to any of the three programs include:

  • How should NTIA verify that funding is used in a way that complements other federal and state broadband programs?
  • What types of data should NTIA require funding recipients to collect and maintain?
  • How can NTIA ensure that all perspectives relating to the program are heard?
  • What are the most valuable types of technical assistance that NTIA could provide states, service providers and other interested parties?
  • How can NTIA ensure that all potential providers have “meaningful and robust” opportunities to compete for funding and partner?
  • Under what circumstances should NTIA wave matching funding requirements included in the infrastructure bill?
  • What is the likely impact of workforce and supply chain constraints on deployment targets?
  • What federal policy tools can NTIA apply to help ensure that broadband funding maximizes the creation of good paying jobs and that women and people of color have full opportunity to secure these jobs?
  • What steps, if any, should NTIA take to ensure maximum use of American-made network components?

BEAD Program Questions

NTIA asks several questions specific to the BEAD program in the RFC. Some of the most important are:

  • What guidance, if any, should NTIA consider regarding reliability, availability, cybersecurity, resiliency, latency or other service quality metrics?
  • What criteria should NTIA require states to consider in evaluating projects?
  • What speeds, throughput, latencies or other metrics will be required to fully connect all Americans to meaningful use over the next five, 10 and 20 years?
  • How should NTIA treat prior buildout commitments that are not reflected in updated FCC maps because the projects are not yet complete?
  • Regarding the requirement that BEAD recipients offer at least one low-cost broadband option, how should NTIA define eligibility?

Middle-Mile Questions

Regarding the Middle-Mile program, important questions in the RFC include:

  • To what extent should middle-mile grants be targeted to areas in which middle-mile facilities exist but cannot economically be used by providers that do not own them?
  • How should NTIA prioritize middle mile grant applications?
  • What splice point or interconnection requirements, if any, should NTIA impose on federally funded middle-mile projects?

Information about the Digital Equity Planning Grant program, as well as additional details about the BEAD and Middle-Mile program, can be found in the RFC at this link.

Those interested in filing comments have until February 4 to do so.

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