The FCC is expected to release its long-awaited broadband maps today. This will open the door for the National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA) to start allocating the Broadband Equity, Access and Deployment (BEAD) program’s $42.5 billion. This is the largest part of the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act’s $65 billion assigned to broadband funding. The NTIA can allocate money to states to deliver broadband to four types of locations: unserved, underserved, community institutions without gigabit service, and high-cost areas, as defined by the NTIA.
Speaking recently at the 2022 Incompas Show, Sarah Smith, broadband program specialist at NTIA, said that in theory her agency could start allocating funds this month, but she does not expect that to happen due to challenge processes.
Stakeholders can challenge both parts of the FCC’s broadband mapping effort: the “fabric” released this summer to show all the nationwide locations that could be served by broadband, and the maps, which are meant to show which locations actually are served at this time.
States may be able to increase their funding by successfully showing the FCC they have more unconnected serviceable locations than the maps portray. But they may also delay the deployment of those funds by challenging the FCC’s initial maps. And the total amount of funding is fixed, so the states are competing with one another.
One driver of challenges to the FCC’s maps may be concern about the way they were produced. The FCC selected CostQuest to provide broadband location data, raising the ire of not only CostQuest’s competitors but also some public interest groups, Inside Towers reported.
Sascha Meinrath, Palmer Chair in Telecommunications at Penn State University, said on a recent Broadband Breakfast webinar that he considers the current FCC mapping exercise a “boondoggle” because maps are created using “proprietary technology and closed methodology that cannot be peer reviewed.” Meinrath and his colleagues have developed an open repository of broadband data, available at broadbandmapping.com.
As challenges are resolved and money finally starts flowing to state broadband offices, ISPs, utilities and non-traditional service providers will all be fighting for their pieces of the pie. Once funds are assigned to providers, another set of challenges will begin: local permitting and franchise agreements.
“I would say that franchise agreements are a plague,” said Kelly McGriff, VP and deputy general counsel at fiber provider Uniti. Speaking at the 2022 Incompas Show, McGriff said he knows the people who work for city governments are well-intentioned, and he believes they want to extract more money from service providers because their budgets are stretched thin and they want to offer their citizens more services. But McGriff thinks one of the most important services for citizens is broadband, and he sees city governments slowing down deployments. He would like to see states take control of municipal rights-of-way and franchise agreements, and he cited Florida as an example of a state that got it right.
States that want to pave the way for broadband providers could soon get some help from the federal government. Even before the passage of the bipartisan Infrastructure Law, the House Committee on Energy and Commerce had introduced more than a dozen separate bills dealing with permitting for communications infrastructure, including fiber, fixed wireless and mobile. As Republicans regain control of the House, some of this legislation is likely to make it to the floor for debate, and bills may be consolidated. It is possible that new legislation around permitting processes could be in place before some states start assigning BEAD broadband grants.
By Martha DeGrasse, Inside Towers Contributing Analyst
Veteran telecom industry editor and journalist Martha DeGrasse is an Inside Towers Contributing Analyst with features appearing monthly. DeGrasse owns Network Builder Reports and contributes regularly to several publications. She was formerly a writer and editor with RCR Wireless and a TV business news producer.