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Some Uncertainties Remain

NTIA Urges Partnerships, Stakeholder Engagement in BEAD Program

NTIA's $5 million capacity and planning grants through the broadband, equity, access and deployment program are “hugely important” and the agency is “going to support them every step of the way," said Evan Feinman, the program's director, during an Information Technology and Innovation Foundation webinar Tuesday. Feinman emphasized the need for partnerships among providers, local governments and anchor institutions, saying they should work with their state broadband offices now if they haven't begun.

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The program’s requirement that states and territories do extensive stakeholder engagement when developing final plans should include “multiple mechanisms,” Feinman said: "This is about ongoing collaboration" and “there has to be transparency really living throughout the spirit of the program.” NTIA anticipates having by the end of the summer a "near-full team” of staff to assist states and territories, Feinman said, noting his office is still looking to hire staff to focus on “around a dozen states.”

The BEAD program’s notice of funding opportunity is “littered with opportunities” for waivers of certain requirements, Feinman said, and “we simply have to be persuaded” by a state that a certain waiver would allow for “the smartest way” to deliver high speed internet. “Every state is going to have to take a different approach toward how it gets every citizen online,” he said. Feinman noted states and territories have until July 18 to submit letters of intent and receive the funding.

NTIA set aside 10% of the $42.5 billion program for “very high-cost locations,” Feinman said, and the agency is “still working out exactly how we’re going to define those.” Funding will be determined by multiplying the percentage of those locations against the 10% set aside, he said.

The broadband availability and adoption gaps are two main challenges that need to be addressed through the BEAD program, said Vernonburg Group founder-CEO Paul Garnett. The adoption gap “is often overlooked” and “it’s important for us from a policy perspective … to appropriately apportion resources and attention” to both issues,” Garnett said. NTIA’s NOFOs “appropriately prioritized” unserved areas and allow for some flexibility in how states spend their money, he said.

The partnership and coordination that’s going to need to happen is “an area that needs a lot of attention,” Garnett said. Some states and territories are more experienced than others, he said, so it’s “extremely important” that every state is successful. State broadband offices should account for a potential subgrantee’s capacity and experience during the grantmaking process, he said.

There's some risk of duplication of funding “if you don’t keep your eye on where all the moving parts are” because there are existing broadband programs ongoing, said NCTA State Legislative Counsel Alex Minard. The “wild card” may be localities that received American Rescue Plan Act support, Minard said, and states should coordinate with officials at the local level when developing their plans.

NTIA’s prioritization of fiber in the BEAD program is “an area ripe for clarification” because “it’s not great for U.S. innovation,” Garnett said. “There’s a lot of great American companies doing really cool things like 5G or O-RAN,” he said referring to open radio access networks. Minard said, and “a lot of that is going to depend on where and how NTIA helps the state set that extremely high-cost threshold.”