States Could Easily Flub Billions In Potential Broadband Funding

from the this-could-get-ugly dept

The U.S. is about to spend an historic $42.5 billion on expanding affordable broadband access courtesy of the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act (IIJA). While this spending is largely being organized by the National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA), much of it involves grants that will need to be managed by the states.

The problem: many states lack the expertise in mapping broadband or even understanding what needs fixing. As such, they’re waiting on the federal government to get its act together on broadband mapping improvements before they can even determine how much money they need or will receive.

The other problem: countless state legislatures are effectively compromised by entrenched telecom monopoly lobbyists, who are already putting all state funding at risk by imposing restrictions, designed by said lobbyists, that prevent this funding from going toward potential competitors.

There are billions more headed toward states for broadband courtesy of the  American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA). But here too there are challenges. A new PEW report indicates that just 24 states have confirmed plans to use billions in federal dollars provided through COVID relief for broadband, either because they couldn’t be bothered, or were waiting on other funding opportunities (namely, the IIJA):

So what’s standing in the way of full-scale deployment of these CPF resources? Among other things, state legislatures are choosing not to use CPF for broadband because they are waiting on other, potentially larger pots of federal money that may be months away rather than seizing this important opportunity now.

Technically, states have until 2024 to appropriate CPF funds. But again, many states simply lack the resources to coordinate all of this. Several states (Mississippi and Rhode Island) don’t even have broadband offices or officials tasked with improving access. Many others are so beholden to telecom monopolies, they’re willing to put billions in potential funding at risk just to appease them.

I’ve spent much of 2022 talking to various tribes, towns, cities, and counties who are actively leveraging this historic boon in funding to create amazing, open access fiber networks. And while I see a lot of amazing innovation going on, there’s also a lot of space for fraud and dysfunction. Especially on the state level, where regulatory capture for giants like AT&T and Comcast tends to be a common and trivial affair.

We’ve already noted how ISPs are leveraging inaccurate U.S. broadband maps to challenge communities that apply for IIJA broadband grants, bogging them down (quite intentionally) in expensive and time-consuming challenges. Then of course there’s the ongoing issues with U.S. federal broadband mapping, which experts suggest won’t be sorted until later this year at the earliest.

That’s a lot of moving parts and a lot of money slushing around in a country not particularly great at policing subsidy fraud, or even accurately measuring where broadband is or isn’t actually available. I still think the infrastructure act will be hugely beneficial to U.S. broadband, but there’s a lot of potential here for some particularly ugly dysfunction and fraud.

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