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Third-Party Reviews?

Panelists Seek Evaluation, Accountability Measures in NTIA's BEAD Program

Economists and telecom experts urged NTIA to develop evaluation and accountability metrics to ensure the $42.5 billion broadband, equity, access, and deployment program is effective in reaching unserved and underserved communities during a Technology Policy Institute webinar Tuesday (see 2205240052). Some suggested NTIA release specific metrics on the type of data states should submit or allow for independent reviews once the program ends.

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I don't trust right now, the way this is set up, that we can guarantee what I think is the laudable goal of reaching and properly serving the unserved,” said Duke University economics professor Michelle Connolly: “I see a lot of money for overbuild.” There are implementation concerns for smaller operators that aren’t used to some of the “time-consuming” requirements in the BEAD program, said Brattle Group Senior Consultant Paroma Sanyal. NTIA’s notice of funding opportunity is “a ton of program design, implementation of safeguards, [and] budgetary caution” to ensure that each state has the “opportunity to develop a plan that works for it,” said BEAD Program Director Evan Feinman.

Effective evaluation of the BEAD program could include some form of a “third-party mechanism” where networks can be tested on certain metrics, Sanyal said, including data on services available in a particular census block and surrounding areas: “Without that, I think it's very hard to get a handle on what is really happening and what the funds are being spent on.” A standardized rubric would be “useful" for researchers to evaluate various projects, Sanyal said.

It’s “worthwhile” to evaluate some of the program's long-term outcomes, said Brookings Institution Center for Technology Innovation Director Nicol Turner Lee. Partnerships with local institutions could “help create the right data formats” for states to submit information to NTIA.

Wilkinson Barker’s Evelyn Remaley, former NTIA acting administrator, noted the agency is “thinking very critically” about evaluation. It’s one of the reasons why the program requires states to show how they plan to conduct local engagement, Remaley said: “Having that local accountability to keep … states and territories accountable to their plan is going to be critical.”

There’s “going to be real scarcity of resources in terms of the physical equipment” and labor needs required for various construction projects, Connolly said. The buy American provisions and waiver opportunities in the infrastructure law are “intended to take into account … a holistic look at the American economy,” Feinman said. States should be more direct about their plans for “integrating equity into the design and builds” of their networks, in addition to boosting adoption rates, Turner Lee said, including who is building the networks and the types of firms supplying products and services.

The NOFO “definitely has sort of a tilt toward fiber,” Sanyal said, but "recognizing that there are other technologies” and being technology neutral in certain areas “might serve us better than picking a winner” (see 2205130054). There may need to be some leniency in areas where there aren’t sufficient maps or fiber isn’t an option, Turner Lee said.

Once the BEAD program has ended, “every single American home and business is going to have an option for available, high speed broadband internet connectivity” and the amount of resources that will have gone toward digital equity and inclusion will be “multiple orders of magnitude more than the entire lifetime amount of resources that have ever gone into that sector,” Feinman said: “The question is just how good a job are we going to be able to do.”