Federal Broadband Funding Train Starts Rolling Down the Track  

Although the bulk of the federal broadband funding provided for in last year’s infrastructure legislation won’t be available until the FCC completes its overhaul of the country’s broadband maps later this year, the Biden Administration opened up the application process in May as part of its “Internet for All” initiative.

Impact: The administration wants states, which will receive the bulk of the money through the $42.5 billion Broadband Equity, Access, and Deployment (BEAD) program, to start preparing their applications and strategies for the funds ahead of time so they’ll be ready once the money is made available. In the meantime, two other programs have a combined $2.5 billion that can be distributed without the need for finalized national broadband maps. The State Digital Equity Act ($1.5 billion) and the Enabling Middle Mile Broadband Infrastructure ($1 billion) program will provide qualified entities, including states, tribal governments, telecom providers, utilities, and non-profits, with grants to support broadband expansion efforts.

The Internet for All initiative, which support’s the administration’s goal of universal nationwide broadband, includes guidelines that call for fiber to get funding priority. But according to National Telecommunications Information Administration head Alan Davidson, this doesn’t mean non-fiber technologies like satellite and fixed wireless won’t receive any money. Davidson, which compared the administration’s effort to the push to electrify the entire country in the 1930s and 40s,  said there will be plenty of money for those providers as well, but it’s clear fiber is the chosen technology.

As FierceTelecom outlined, and we’ve discussed in previous GIGTRAK+ Insights, the BEAD program will initially distribute $100 million to each state. Under the program guidelines to eliminate waste and overbuilding, this money will then be used to expand high-speed broadband infrastructure to unserved and underserved areas, defined as locations where Internet speeds fail to reach the 25/3 Mbps threshold. The remainder of the BEAD funding will be distributed based on the FCC’s new broadband maps, which should be available later this year. The map-based funding will vary by state based on need.

In its Notice of Funding Opportunity, NTIA indicated that locations served only by satellite or other broadband services using unlicensed spectrum will also be considered unserved and therefore eligible for funding. With this and other numerous qualifiers about how and where the funding can be distributed, it’s the administration’s view that states be prepared to meet the program requirements before receiving the funding. For instance, there is also a “Buy American” provision in the BEAD program calling for products included in federally funded broadband deployments to source at least 55% of their equipment from the U.S. Waivers are available, but officials have said they aim to keep those to a minimum. Then once a state receives its funding, additional guidelines will dictate which providers are eligible for funding and where they can deploy their networks, with most states likely to see multiple providers competing for the money.

Because states only have a limited amount of time (180 days/6 months) to submit their applications after the maps are certified, federal officials have urged states to start working on their proposals well ahead of time. To help with that, states are eligible for up to $5 million in initial planning funds, which requires submission of a five-year action plan within 270 days of receipt of the funds. Just days after opening the application process, more than 30 states and territories had already indicated their plans to participate, with letters of intent due by July 18 for BEAD, July 12 for the State Digital Equity Act program, and Sept. 30 for the middle-mile program.

In a recent appearance at the Mountain Connect conference, Davidson said money for the middle-mile program will become available later this year ahead of any BEAD funding distribution. The State Digital Equity grants will also be distributed on a shorter timeline, meaning at least $2.5 billion in funding should come online this year. With more information still to come, including more detailed guidance for states, telecom providers, and other entities participating in the process, the second half of the year will be just the start of the super-charged federal fiber broadband deployment process. 

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