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Industry, State Officials Stress Partnerships, Better Data for BEAD Program

Industry and state broadband officials emphasized the need for better data on broadband availability and public-private partnerships as NTIA prepares to administer its broadband, equity, access and deployment program, speaking at USTelecom's broadband investment forum Wednesday. Some raised concerns about regulatory requirements in the BEAD program and ensuring state broadband offices are prepared to administer funding to subgrantees.

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There’s “no excuse” if Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act funding doesn’t result in “at least 97%” of all Americans being “covered with affordable, accessible high-speed broadband,” said Sen. Mark Warner, D-Va. It’s “critically important” that IIJA grant recipients aren’t required to return funding to the federal government through income taxes, Warner said, adding he’s “engaged in real time in conversations” to "see if we could get this included at the end of year package.” There may also be “some additional incremental support coming out of Congress” to ensure the BEAD program is successful, he said. Taxing the grants "would limit the effectiveness of the deployment programs," said Sen. Jerry Moran, R-Kan., and "if there's any hope that there's common sense in Washington D.C., this seems like a bill that will become law."

We anticipate utilizing the funding through the program to completely close the digital divide in Virginia” by addressing adoption and affordability, said Virginia Office of Broadband Director Tamarah Holmes. The state identified about 210,000 locations lacking broadband speeds of 100/20 Mbps, Holmes said, “so we’re looking forward to utilizing the BEAD funding” to reach those areas. Holmes noted Virginia filed its challenge of the FCC’s broadband serviceable location fabric Oct. 31 with areas that are missing. The state plans to file a second challenge to ensure all addresses are in the fabric. “We need to make sure that those maps are accurate,” Moran said, and “we need to prioritize and get money to the places that are unserved first.” Moran urged the FCC, NTIA and Rural Utilities Service to coordinate on their various programs to ensure funding doesn't go to the same places.

The BEAD program is “a massive opportunity,” said Brightspeed CEO Bob Mudge. There are some concerns about the program’s time frame, the “complexity from a mapping standpoint,” and the “complexity that needs to now be delegated to the states” on subgrants, Mudge said. Brightspeed is “very focused on the things that we can control,” he said, including working with states on roadblock removal and permitting, “to bring that BEAD money to market and get it invested.” The key is working with state broadband offices to develop public-private partnerships, said Consolidated Communications CEO Bob Udell. The “supply chain issue is still fragile,” Mudge said, so “simplicity of design … will help us with the construction build.” It’s something that “could be with us for a while,” he said.

"Good communication with providers is essential upfront,” said Nate Denny, North Carolina deputy secretary for broadband and digital equity. Better data is needed because “we don’t have the regulatory muscle to require providers to tell us exactly who they’re serving statewide” and with what kind of technology, Denny said, plus “more proactive and strategic tools” to maximize funding. Developing partnerships with industry is “really important,” Holmes said, noting there are concerns about the BEAD program’s regulatory requirements. The “biggest thing we’re working on right now” is helping providers navigate existing federal programs, so “when BEAD money comes down, we'll be really prepared,” she said. Denny and Holmes stressed the need for states to focus on capacity building.

There’s “a lot of work to do” to increase enrollment in the FCC’s affordable connectivity program, Denny said, noting North Carolina has more than 1.3 million households eligible for the benefit and more than 600,000 currently enrolled. The ACP is intended to be a permanent program, said Mitch Landrieu, White House infrastructure coordinator, noting about $2 billion of the $14 billion program has been spent to date. It will be funded for “a fairly significant point of time,” Landrieu said, and “the more people that have access to it, the much harder it’s going to be for Congress to end the program.”