WISPA Paper: NTIA’s Fiber Bias Could Raise BEAD Costs by Billions

The Wireless Internet Service Providers Association (WISPA) renewed its call Thursday for NTIA to change its qualifications for what companies receive BEAD grant funds. In a new research paper commissioned by WISPA released Thursday, Dr. William Lehr, a telecommunications and internet industry economist and consultant, says NTIA’s technological bias toward fiber could raise BEAD costs by tens of billions of dollars and drag out deployment.

“Prioritizing fiber projects over other broadband technologies represents a significant departure from the sound regulatory principle of technological neutrality,” states Lehr. This bias “could increase costs by upwards of $30 to $60 billion depending on the distribution of fiber deployment costs for the unserved locations.”  

Using recent FCC data, Lehr calculates that walling off otherwise recognized broadband alternatives “unambiguously adds” at least 1.9 million new locations calling for government-funded overbuilding with BEAD funds. As a result, “the public funding challenge of promoting universal service to broadband in the U.S. may be elevated by a third, or by more than $10 billion,” explains Lehr.

In the Infrastructure Law, Congress specified that the grants must not favor one technology for broadband deployment over others. Several telecom-related trade associations have urged NTIA to change its qualifications for what companies receive BEAD grant funds to make them technology neutral — including WISPA, NATE, WIA, and CCA.

NTIA is responsible for determining how much of $45 billion it allocates to states. The bulk of that will go towards BEAD, and the rest will be split among a middle mile infrastructure program and state digital equity programs. 

Questioned about its approach by Senators in June, NTIA Administrator Alan Davidson told lawmakers NTIA expects “different states to use different technologies” and the BEAD funding qualifications allows for that. But then he went further, saying, “We think fiber is the gold standard,” because “it’s the most resilient” technology, Inside Towers reported. But Davidson acknowledged “for some states fiber won’t be the answer. We do give flexibility for those” other technologies like wireless and satellite-delivered broadband, he testified.

WISPA has met with NTIA representatives several times over this issue. A WISPA spokesman told Inside Towers yesterday that NTIA representatives “have yet to change their minds.”

In conclusion, Lehr says NTIA’s fiber focus places “unreasonable” constraints on state broadband offices seeking to promote digital infrastructure goals efficiently.” To rectify this, he suggests states lobby the FCC and NTIA “to push for more sensible rules.” Those efforts will be easier if states have better data about the costs and available technical options for deploying broadband infrastructure in the state, he suggests, including fiber costs to every location and the costs of using alternative technologies. 

By Leslie Stimson, Inside Towers Washington Bureau Chief

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