State governments will soon have a big responsibility that will impact the availability of broadband in their states. The BEAD program included in the infrastructure bill adopted late last year makes $42.5 billion available for broadband deployments and gives state governments responsibility for awarding those funds.
Considering that some states currently have no state broadband office and those that do have an average of 10 staffers, it would appear that the states can use all the advice they can get. Providing that advice is the goal of a new 42-page Broadband Infrastructure Playbook created by telecom consulting firm Cartesian for the Fiber Broadband Association (FBA) and NTCA—The Rural Broadband Association.
State BEAD Responsibilities
Currently, states have only the pages of the infrastructure act about the BEAD program to guide them.
The National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA) is expected to provide more details in a notice of funding opportunity (NOFA) to be issued in May, and service provider associations have advised NTIA to take a strong supervisory role toward the states. In the meantime, the playbook advises states not to wait until the NOFA to start making plans.
Among the issues to be considered and advice provided in the playbook:
- BEAD funding will not be released to a state until the state submits appropriate documentation and although requirements for that documentation have not been detailed yet, the playbook includes advice on the type of information states should begin gathering now.
- States also should be thinking about whether they want to request up to $5 million of their allotment to help in planning for the BEAD, the playbook notes.
- Each state also can use up to 2% of the total infrastructure funding allocated to it for administrative purposes and the playbook advises the states to choose that option, as they will likely need to expand staff considerably. A portion of the $5 million in planning funds also can be used for staffing.
- Although the infrastructure act requires providers receiving BEAD funding to deploy service at speeds of at least 100 Mbps downstream and 20 Mbps upstream, the states could impose stricter requirements and should be thinking about this now.
- The BEAD also requires states to prioritize projects for areas lacking high-speed broadband and only after all those areas are covered can the state allocate funding for underserved areas and anchor institutions. This raises the question of whether the state should conduct separate funding rounds, beginning with unserved areas only, or should use just a single round with all types of projects included (and prioritized).
- The federal government is expected to make the initial determination about areas eligible for BEAD funding, but the states also will be responsible for conducting a challenge process, another responsibility they should be thinking about now. The playbook references the process used for a state broadband grant program in Illinois as one that other states should consider as a model for their plans.
- Network operators receiving BEAD funding also will be required to offer discounted broadband for low-income households. The authors point to a program established in Wisconsin as one that other states may want to emulate.
- States also may want to look at how Iowa handled decisions about applicants whose proposed serving areas overlapped with those of other applicants.
The playbook authors expect NTIA to provide further guidance on several gray areas, including how to interpret the infrastructure act requirement for projects to be able to scale over time and about matching fund requirements. The act requires 25% matching funds except in high-cost areas but considering that unserved areas generally are high-cost areas, it’s not clear where the matching funds requirement would apply. The authors speculate that states may be able to establish their own matching fund requirements for an amount less than 25%.
The BEAD program allocates at least $100 million to each state, with additional funding allocated based on what current federal data shows to be the number of unserved locations in the state. Current data has been widely criticized for inaccuracies, however, and the government is in the process of obtaining more accurate data, but that data isn’t expected until late this year or early next year.
Accordingly, experts on a recent panel about broadband mapping had another piece of advice for the states, encouraging them to conduct their own broadband mapping initiative so that they can challenge the funding allotted to them.
The new playbook about state BEAD responsibilities echoed that advice and noted that states can spend a portion of their $5 million in planning funds for data collection.