Sandip Bhowmick, Arizona Broadband Director

“We’re set up to attract, expand, and create new businesses and job opportunities while at the same time be unimpeded by government red tape and mandates,” said Sandip Bhowmick, state broadband director and vice president of infrastructure at Arizona Commerce Authority (ACA).

In an interview with Telecompetitor, Bhowmick explained that Arizona’s broadband office is housed within the ACA, a unique government organization overseen by a public-private board of directors and chaired by the Arizona governor. The ACA’s vision is to bring together leaders from government, business, universities, and similar organizations to maximize the state’s assets for the best possible economic development leadership.

Arizona’s underserved and unserved population comes in at 318,000, or approximately 12% of the state’s 2.7 million households. The state is slated to receive nearly a billion ($993.1 million) in BEAD funds.

“The Arizona Commerce Authority has become the leading economic development agency in the state, and we’re determined that the broadband office will carry on the tradition of economic impact with BEAD,” said Bhowmick.

Understanding the Landscape

With the hefty BEAD investment on the way, Bhowmick explained that Arizona is much better prepared than it would have been even just a few years ago. 

The ACA ran a feasibility study prior to the pandemic, surveying both providers and residents to better understand the state’s broadband landscape. Feedback was valuable, yet it probably was already known that the lack of adequate middle mile connectivity in Arizona was a huge barrier to getting service to residents outside of the Phoenix and Tucson metro areas.

At the same time, the study also revealed that 90% of Arizona’s population lives within five miles of interstate and state highways.

“So, we went through [the] legislation process,” said Bhowmick. “We worked with the Arizona Department of Transportation (ADOT) — as our vision was to deploy a middle mile backbone network along the interstate and state highways — and created Smart Highway Corridors System.”

Backbone for BEAD

To-date, nearly 204 miles of the middle mile network have been completed, including fiber along I-17 to Flagstaff and I-19 to Nogales, from Phoenix and Tucson, respectively. An additional middle mile network of 197 miles is currently being built to Flagstaff from California along I-40 and is expected to be completed by 2025. The middle mile price tag was $152 million, funded by the ARPA’s State and Local Fiscal Recovery Fund program.

Bhowmick espoused that the new fiber infrastructure and middle-mile fiber network is a foundation for BEAD to deliver maximum impact in Arizona. Specifically, the middle mile network is utilizing Dura-line conduit and seven microducts, each capable of accommodating up to 288 strands of fiber. ADOT will use one of the seven to implement smart transportation systems and connect schools, colleges and universities. The remaining capacity will be available for commercial purposes and create revenue for the state that can potentially be reinvested.

ACA is currently evaluating a private partner to provide operation, maintenance, and commercialization (OMC) of the fiber infrastructure that includes but is not limited to the recently built internet middle mile networks. The OMC partner will oversee commercializing excess capacity to offset costs and generate revenue in myriad ways including dark fiber, wholesale, and even internet service offered directly to commercial and residential customers.

Ready(ish) for BEAD

With a core team that numbers six full-time employees, a little help is on the way with two openings waiting to be filled and consultants being utilized whenever possible. Additionally, the broadband office receives support from the ACA team, including legislative affairs, marketing, grants and finance professionals, and more.

“The NTIA isn’t waiting for us; we have to get things done and meet deadlines,” opined Bhowmick.

Last year the team accomplished a lot with its limited staffing and time. The availability challenge process resulted in 66,000 accepted locations, which Bhowmick believes bumped up the Arizona BEAD allocation slightly.

Plus, his team recently allocated $100 million in American Rescue Plan Act/CPF broadband funding to 20 projects. With matching funds, the final investment was $212 million and will bring service to nearly 50,000 homes.

While some feedback received during the public comment phase was rejected, including the request to be able to define project areas, other requests were met. Challenges (including five-year plan, volumes 1 and 2) are being dealt with on a rolling basis versus all at once to accommodate communities that want longer challenge durations as well as ISPs that desire shorter turnaround.  

“This funding comes with a massive amount of responsibility,” said Bhowmick. “We’re being given a tremendous opportunity, so it’s our job to make sure we get the funding where there are unserved or underserved households — as many as possible with fiber to maximize ROI.”

The ACA criteria for BEAD awards will also give points for community anchor institution (CAI) connections. Every project area will have an identified number of CAIs, and the number proposed to be connected will impact scores.

With the middle-mile network in place and nearly a billion dollars on the way, Bhowmick is confident that BEAD will help eradicate Arizona’s digital divide. He is, however, realistic that some homes may be too remote for fiber and sometimes even too remote for fixed wireless. He reports that wireless won’t work for some Arizonans that are so remote that only low earth orbit satellite will reach them.

The timelines Arizona is setting are in keeping with what we’re seeing in other states, with subgrantees being selected in mid-2024, lined up by March 2025, and then beginning construction in the summer of 2025.

Bhowmick’s Story

A young man in his thirties, Sandip Bhowmick’s hair isn’t showing any gray… yet. He arrived in the U.S. as a student immigrant from Bangladesh.

A dozen years later, with a masters of science in Electrical and Computer Engineering and work experience in the private telecommunications sector, as well as a stint in the U.S. Army under his belt, he found himself serving Arizonans in this unique and highly demanding capacity as its broadband czar.

Now a U.S. citizen, Bhowmick is determined to “give back” to his adopted country.

“I’m determined to serve the people of this country in any way I can, in uniform or out,” said Bhowmick. “I could never do enough in exchange for what this country has already given me.”

Additional information about Arizona broadband, including links to state resources, state-specific Telecompetitor coverage and more can be found on the Broadband Nation web page for the state.

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