from the do-not-pass-go,-do-not-collect-$200 dept
As we’ve previously noted, the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act will dole out an historic $65 billion to shore up broadband access. $42 billion of that total will directly fund a Broadband Equity, Access, and Deployment (BEAD) grant program overseen by the NTIA. It’s a massive infusion of money, and much of it should have a genuine, productive impact on the nation’s longstanding broadband gaps.
The continued problem: we still haven’t accurately measured where U.S. broadband is or isn’t available, and there’s still no hard date for when long-awaited mapping improvements will be finished.
Yet the NTIA announced it’s starting to dole out the money starting this week:
To participate in the BEAD Program, states and other eligible entities must submit a letter of intent and a planning funds budget, which will unlock $5 million in planning funds and allow states to begin creating their five-year action plan. Each state will have direct support from dedicated NTIA staff through every step of the process. Each participating state is guaranteed a minimum $100 million allocation, with additional funding determinations made based on the forthcoming coverage maps from the Federal Communications Commission.
That we still haven’t actually accurately mapped broadband availability (after spending $350 million on an FCC broadband map) continues to be a stunning policy failure we just like to glaze over.
Not only do many states not have accurate maps to determine where broadband is needed, many don’t have effective broadband offices or staff to do a lot of this heavy lifting. And the lifting will be heavy; to prevent the program from being abused by fraud (a good thing), the NTIA has saddled the funds with a lot of requirements industry watchers like Doug Dawson say may be costly and problematic:
When I started to make a full list of all of the grant requirements suggested by the NOFO, I realized that these are going to be the most complicated broadband grants ever – more complicated even than ReConnect grants. It looks like the NTIA made a list of everything that could possibly go wrong with a project or an ISP and made each into a grant requirement. Here are just a few of the new requirements I’ve never seen in a grant before: a cybersecurity plan, a climate resiliency plan, a supply chain risk management plan, a middle-class affordability plan, and a project workforce continuity plan if not using union labor.
The grant funds are going to be considered a taxable income by the IRS. The requirements will add a lot of costs that wouldn’t be present were a local community to explore construction and financing options on its own. That in turn might discourage a lot of new broadband providers from even bothering, assuming, again, their state can determine where broadband is and has the staff to tackle the grants.
Another problem: ISP lobbyists have convinced several states to restrict funding from going to any companies that compete with regional monopolies (which is forbidden by NTIA rules, but may or may not be enforced). Those same regional monopolies are also using existing, unreliable maps to saddle grant applications with costly additional challenges aimed at derailing projects.
Again, this isn’t too pooh-pooh broadband subsidies. They can be an exceptionally useful way to spur deployment of fiber to needed areas. The point here is to highlight how much potential for abuse exists given we failed to do the fundamentals, and how it’s a bit more complicated than just throwing billions of dollars at the problem and then claiming “mission accomplished.”
U.S. telecom has spent thirty-plus years mired in monopolization, and federal regulators have been so feckless and captured they’ve failed to even measure the scope of the problem. Throwing billions of dollars at the “digital divide” before fixing the underlying rot is like building a new house on a gigantic termite mound.