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'Black Box'

State BEAD Plans Could Look Much Different After NTIA Curing

State broadband officials shed some light Tuesday into NTIA’s process for recommending changes to states’ broadband, equity, access and deployment (BEAD) initial plans. NTIA’s so-called “curing" process lacks the transparency from earlier in the process when states sought public comments on drafts, some state and industry officials said during an FCBA webinar. States said they expect to use a mix of network technologies to reach everyone who needs high-speed internet.

Just as the FCBA panel got underway, Maine received an NTIA email about what to change in volume 2 of the state’s initial plan, said Brian Allenby, Maine Connectivity Authority program operations and communications director. He said 40% of the required changes were for nondeployment activities, 20% subgrantee qualifications, 15% subgrantee selection process scoring and 5% low-cost requirements. With volume 1, some changes requested by NTIA were technical, such as adding a single word to a spreadsheet box, said Allenby: Other requests were more open-ended and required more explanation.

States' draft initial plans “may not bear any semblance” to what NTIA finally approves, cautioned Kansas Broadband Development Director Jade Piros de Carvalho. It helped Kansas to seek preliminary NTIA input on drafts before putting them out for comment, she said. “I’m glad we did because our scoring rubric was torn completely apart.”

The curing process “does seem to be a bit opaque” for those outside NTIA and state broadband offices, said Mark Vasconi, former director of the Washington State Broadband Office. The northwest state received some curing requests from NTIA last week, he said. From what Vasconi hears, the requested changes weren’t substantial, he said.

It’s a little frustrating" to U.S. Cellular "that we submitted our comments and then the process suddenly became a little less transparent,” Senior Director-Government Affairs Stephanie Cassioppi said on a separate panel. NCTA Lead Legislative Counsel Alex Minard agreed. “We went through this great period of sunshine with outreach and commenting on drafts and roundtables,” he said. But after states submitted plans to NTIA at the end of last year, “this curing process has turned into something of a black box.” It’s unclear how much variety there will ultimately be among states, said Minard. The Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act gave states broad authority, “but we’re seeing some tension between that and what NTIA may or may not be asking of them.”

States face various hurdles ahead, said Washington state’s Vasconi. Keeping up with BEAD deadlines has been a continuing challenge, he said. "These timelines have been very short given the magnitude of what we've been trying to do.” Meanwhile, ACP’s possible demise may put a wrench in states plans to make service affordable, Vasconi said. “Many of the low-income plans that states have put together have basically been tied to ACP's continuation.” Washington state’s $1.23 billion allocation likely won’t be enough to extend fiber to 300,000 locations that need faster service, said Vasconi: It must find efficiencies and have flexibility to choose between different technologies.

Anticipating the most BEAD money among states, Texas expects “to reach universal service but with a mix of fiber and alternative technologies,” Erin Benal, Texas Broadband Development Office broadband development coordinator, wrote in the Zoom webinar’s Q&A tab. “It is projected to cost close to $10 billion to connect each location with end-to-end fiber.” NTIA allotted Texas $3.3 billion.

Maine projects “that we will not have enough funding to connect all locations with fiber, given the lack of density in our most remote and hard to reach areas,” wrote Allenby. Maine received a $271.98 million allocation. “We will be facilitating connections through a combination of primarily fiber, but with some complementary alternative technologies like [fixed wireless access] and [low earth orbit satellite].”

Kansas expects to “get to universal connectivity with a mix” of 75% fiber and 25% fixed wireless, wrote Piros de Carvalho. NTIA allocated $451.7 million to Kansas. “We're confident in our model, but of course all models are inaccurate. The test will be where providers come in with bids on funding areas and where we set our” extremely high cost per location threshold. Kansas plans to set the threshold after bids come in, she said. Allenby said that Maine will set its threshold “after we've received all the applications … and have a sense of what project areas remain and the balance of technology types that we'll need to back into given the total funding amount.”