By Brian Whitacre and Christina Biedny
The federal government is investing billions of dollars in expanding broadband Internet access. But it is at the state level that financial rubber meets the fiber optic route. History suggests that some states are ahead of the game while others will need to catch up.
This time, however, the States are at the center of funding that comes into the pipeline. The $ 42.5 billion broadband equity, access and deployment program, known as BEAD, requires each state to develop a five-year action plan outlining how it will use the funds, including a process for prioritizing locations classified as “unserved”. or “underserved”.
Likewise, the $ 2.7 billion Digital equity law demands that each state put in place an organization responsible for developing a digital equity plan, which will help disburse sub-grants. Digital equity means ensuring that every community has adequate access to the technologies and skills necessary to fully participate in society.
From beginners to crafty veterans
Not all states are equally placed to manage the funds that will come from the federal government. Some states operated formal broadband offices for years, and many of them have extensive experience running their own broadband grant programs. In others, several agencies have broadband jurisdiction, so even deciding who will develop the action plan can be difficult.
In short, states have varied backgrounds when it comes to broadband projects. Deploying billions of dollars in funding will be a challenge for states new to evaluating nominations – or for those new to the rapidly growing field of digital equity.
Why every state gets $ 100 million
Most of the upcoming broadband funding is the BEAD program focused on providing new broadband infrastructure. Each state will be allocated an initial amount of $ 100 million, with the remainder of the $ 42.5 billion allocated based on the percentage of unserved locations in the states. States are then responsible for disbursing these funds in the form of sub-grants. Unserved locations may include agricultural and commercial sites, not just households.
So while it may seem unfair than Vermont, with less 50,000 people classified as unserved, receives the same initial allocation as Texas, with over 1.2 million people unserved, this investment represents less than 15% of total BEAD funding. The $ 100 million should also encourage states to establish their five-year action plans and set up offices capable of awarding grants within their borders.
The task of putting in place a process to process grant applications and assess those that should be funded is not trivial. Recent research defined a competitive subsidy program as a key component of national broadband policy, including the establishment of evaluation criteria.
States with high speed offices and grant programs will be in a good position to hit the ground while running. States that do not yet have broadband offices are Alabama, Alaska, Arizona, Delaware, Hawaii, Idaho, Iowa, Michigan, Mississippi, Montana, Nebraska , Nevada, New Hampshire, New Jersey, North Dakota, Oklahoma, Pennsylvania and South Carolina. , South Dakota, Tennessee, Texas, Vermont and Wyoming. The District of Columbia also does not have a broadband office. These governments will need to spend a lot of time and effort establishing ground rules and recruiting and training staff to manage the grant evaluation process.
The law also adds several points related to grants that will be new to most states, regardless of how long their broadband office has been in existence. One prevents states from excluding co-ops, local governments, nonprofits, and utilities when considering who is eligible for broadband funds.
The second requires grant recipients to establish a low cost service option, leaving the definition of “low cost” to the state. Similar efforts at the state level have not well done in the past, and winners are likely to object to price and eligibility.
As federal programs to tackle broadband infrastructure has been around for some time, the emphasis on digital equity is new. Here again, some states are advantaged.
California has had a program focusing on digital literacy, accessibility and broadband adoption, with grant programs in each, for over 10 years. Maine and North Carolina were also early in setting up digital inclusion efforts, and Washington spent $ 7.5 million in public funds before the passage of the infrastructure law.
Most of the other states are new to the subject, although there are resources to help them get started.
State policies – and experience – matter
The pending broadband funds will build on many of these practices – for states that have the foresight to put them in place and make them work. Other states will be at a disadvantage from the start. We believe these differences are likely to play an important role in the success of the overall program.