BEAD Money: What Comes Next?

UPDATE The President’s announcement on Monday concerning state allocations for $42.5 billion in grants for deploying broadband infrastructure marks the beginning of a long road.

“We came out of the pandemic different than we were before,” said FCC Chairwoman Jessica Rosenworcel. “For so long, we have clutched pearls and wrung our hands out over there not being broadband in rural communities … now we finally have the data and dollars to do something about it,” she said.

NTIA allotted each state at least $107 million in BEAD funds, Inside Towers reported. The exact amount the U.S. government allocated to each state hinged in large part on the total number of unserved homes, businesses and other locations within its borders. Nationally, the United States has identified more than 8.5 million such locations after a year-long effort by the FCC to remap the nation and its connectivity.

With the funding commitments in hand, states next must develop blueprints for how to bring broadband to disconnected communities. The fuller process is expected to occur over the next two years, according to administration officials, notes The Washington Post. Officials said each state still must embark on its own study to determine who does and does not have the internet, a key task to determine where they will spend federal dollars.

States must complete a multi-step process before they can use the funds. They must commit to first connecting unserved locations that lack access to at least 25 Mbps/3 Mbps. According to the FCC broadband maps used to determine each state’s allotment, more than seven percent of the country falls into this category.

The states’ initial proposals must identify unserved locations that aren’t already receiving money from other broadband programs. They must also get local nonprofits, ISPs and governments to suggest other locations in need of improved services.

States must outline plans to hire skilled workers, assess the resiliency of physical infrastructure in the face of climate threats, and ensure that connections forged with BEAD money will be affordable, according to The Post.

Once the initial proposals are approved, states can access up to 20 percent of their allotments to begin awarding grants to telecommunications companies, electric co-ops and other broadband providers, Inside Towers reported. The remaining 80 percent will be released once the federal government approves a separate, final proposal. That will outline how states plan to hold the internet providers they’ve selected accountable for spending the money properly.

Kathryn de Wit, director of the Pew Charitable Trust’s broadband access initiative, said this back-and-forth between the states, the federal government and the public sets the BEAD program apart from other federal broadband aid programs. “There are many more requirements in place for states to demonstrate that they have planned for this funding and they have engaged the public and evaluated options,” de Wit said.

Experts agree that the stakes are high. Blair Levin, former FCC chief of staff who was the executive director of the National Broadband Plan under former President Barack Obama, called the program a “one-shot deal. If the effort succeeds, there’ll be no need for another,” Levin said. “If it doesn’t succeed, people will say, ‘Why would we do that?’”

By Leslie Stimson, Inside Towers Washington Bureau Chief

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