While waiting for grant funding, state broadband leaders should work to engage and educate local communities. DALLAS, March 29, 2023 — Local broadband stakeholders should take advantage of the time before federal grant funding is disbursed to make detailed plans and build strong community relationships, according to state broadband officials and industry experts at Connected America on Wednesday. “I like to start with setting reasonable expectations — it takes a while to design a grant program, administer it, score applications,” said Earnie Holtrey, deputy director of the Indiana Broadband Office. “And then once the ink dries on the contract, the real work begins, and the implementation timelines… can stretch out six or eight years.” While many state officials are eagerly awaiting funding from the $42.5 billion Broadband Equity, Access and Deployment Program and other government initiatives, taking the time to thoroughly plan will be key to maximizing the awards, advised John Tait, director for North America at Biarri Networks. “The giant influx of money in and of itself is not a panacea,” he said. “The more detailed your plan is [and] the more data you have available, the faster you’re able to shift and make better use of that capital when it does come.” BEAD funds are unlikely to be disbursed before early 2024, Holtrey predicted. This gives state broadband offices, service providers and other stakeholders a year to refine their plans and educate their local communities, he said. Local leaders should then “use the next four years to know where your local assets are and really begin to leverage those,” said Brian Mefford, vice president of broadband strategy at VETRO. Although the federal grant processes move slowly, Holtrey encouraged stakeholders to begin planning and launching connectivity projects as soon as possible. “Spend some money now, get some projects going — there’s still going to be plenty of projects to do when the BEAD money comes around,” he said. “And we really know that even after BEAD, probably, it’s not going to be completely done.” One potential first step is investing in education at the local level in order to become a trusted resource, Holtrey added. State broadband officers “don’t just need to be a vehicle to transmit funds — they need to be an educator for their state,” Tait said. “They need to be a resource for their communities.” Tait also emphasized the importance of local community involvement, calling it a “key common denominator to projects that are successful.” “Where you’ve got that engagement and that drive at the local level, typically, you’ll see a really, really good outcome in a broadband deployment,” he said. Glen Howie, director of the Arkansas State Broadband Office, said that his team is fostering this engagement by visiting each individual county, meeting with local leaders and helping them to create their own connectivity plans. Grant programs that operate at the state and local levels are better able to work with regional providers, said Amanda Hofer, assistant general manager at the Central Texas Telephone Cooperative. “When it’s made at a federal level, they don’t understand the microeconomics and the players who are there supporting those local communities, so… the communities do not always get served the way that is best for them.” However, local operations often involve a separate problem: “They just don’t have the manpower and the resources, and they don’t even know where to begin,” Hofer said. Another challenge is that some of the compliance requirements of federal grant programs are difficult for small, local service providers to meet, Howie said. “That’s something that we have to continue as an office, as a state, to try to triage.” Reporter Em McPhie studied communication design and writing at Washington University in St. Louis, where she was a managing editor for the student newspaper. In addition to agency and freelance marketing experience, she has reported extensively on Section 230, big tech, and rural broadband access. She is a founding board member of Code Open Sesame, an organization that teaches computer programming skills to underprivileged children. WASHINGTON, March 23, 2023 – American Rescue Plan Act funds sets the United States ahead in economic resiliency, said experts at a Brookings Institution event Thursday. When ARPA was passed in March of 2021, the United States Department of the Treasury was tasked with ensuring that funds would be used to build sustainable programs past the 2026 expenditure deadline as well as programs that would build capacity for future government programs, said Jacob Leibenluft of the Treasury. At the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, states did not have the systems in place to reach people in need of help, said Leibenluft. ARPA funds help communities invest in a strong system to provide support to community members, which sets the United States ahead of where it would have been otherwise, he said, claiming that the funds will help the country weather upcoming economic turmoil. To take advantage of this opportunity, Leibenluft suggested that localities develop and share best practices. The most effective way to use ARPA funds is to develop the “plumbing” that connects citizens to government programs which localities can then maintain on their own budgets, he said. “There are certain things that are just not sustainable in the absence of ARPA funds,” he continued, “what we have built is really a demonstration of programs that can be sustained through a combination of local, state and federal funds.” Local governments need to view ARPA as one-time spending, added Tishara Jones, mayor of Saint Louis, Missouri. Saint Louis did not develop any ARPA-reliant programs that would extend beyond the 2026 expenditure deadline. Instead, the city is finding revenue in its existing budget for supporting new programs on its own. Even so, state officials suggest that the Treasury’s 2026 expenditure deadline is too soon, claiming that not all funds necessary for broadband infrastructure upgrades will be received by that time. The American Rescue Plan gave $1.9 trillion for direct financial assistance, education support, health programs, transportation, and state and local fiscal recovery. An estimated 10% of funds are being used to build infrastructure, including broadband deployment, according to Brookings. The program’s allocation phase is set to be complete by the end of 2024. Given the vital ways in which access to broadband enables America, adequate Internet for all is a necessary and overdue undertaking. To help close the digital divide, the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act includes $42.5 billion in Broadband Equity, Access and Deployment funding for the last mile. Add to this the estimated level of subgrantee matching funds and the total last mile figure rises to $64 billon, according to the BEAD Funding Allocation and Project Award Framework from ACA Connects and Cartesian. The federal funds will be disbursed by the Department of Commerce’s National Telecommunications and Information Administration to the State Broadband Offices who will then award subgrants to service providers. On June 30, each state will find out their allocation amount. By 2024, the states will establish a competitive subgrantee process to start selecting applicants and distributing funds. A critical element of the selection process is the methodology for scoring the technical merits of each subgrantee and their proposal. Specific assessment criteria to be used by each state are not yet set. However, the subgrantee’s network must be built to meet these key performance and technical requirements: Based on our conversations with a number of state broadband leaders, the answers could be as varied as the number of states. For example, some states intend to rigorously judge each applicant’s technical capability, network design and project readiness. In contrast, another state believes that a deep upfront assessment is not needed because the service provider will not receive funds until certain operational milestones are met. Upon completion, an audit of the network’s performance could be implemented. We, at Broadband Success Partners, are a bit biased about the level of technical scrutiny we think the states should apply. Having assessed over 50 operating and planned networks for private sector clients, we appreciate the importance of a thorough technical assessment. Our network analyses, management interviews and physical inspections have yielded a valuable number of dos and don’ts. By category, below are some of the critical issues we’ve identified. While the problems we uncover do not always raise to the level of a red flag, it happens often enough to justify this exercise. Our clients who invest their own capital in these networks certainly think so. The same should hold true for networks funded with taxpayer money. Fiber, coax and fixed wireless network plans dependent on BEAD funding demand serious scrutiny. David Strauss is a Principal and Co-founder of Broadband Success Partners, the leading broadband consulting firm focused exclusively on network evaluation and technical due diligence. This piece is exclusive to Broadband Breakfast. Broadband Breakfast accepts commentary from informed observers of the broadband scene. Please send pieces to [email protected]. The views reflected in Expert Opinion pieces do not necessarily reflect the views of Broadband Breakfast and Breakfast Media LLC. Department of Treasury is working to provide guidance for providers on how to grow their business. WASHINGTON, March 16, 2023 – The Treasury Department is focusing on keeping afloat other federal agencies about completed broadband builds using its Capital Projects Fund to ensure federal money is not wasted, according to the program’s director on Wednesday. Joseph Wender said on a Fiber for Breakfast web event that the department requires recipients of money from the fund to provide the coordinates of “every location that’s been served. “Because we do feel an obligation to our federal partners, particularly the [Federal Communications Commission] and the [National Telecommunications and Information Administration] to ensure that our federally funded locations are fit into the larger map,” Wender added. “We need to have a global awareness of where all of our funds are,” he added. “That is a reporting requirement that we take very seriously.” The FCC released its first version of the broadband map in November and subsequently opened up a second round of data collection on January 3. Since then there have been challenges sent to the agency on the accuracy of the map, including where areas are reported to have builds but don’t. The map will be used by the NTIA’s Broadband Equity, Access and Deployment program to deliver $42.5 billion to the states by June 30. Industry associations and experts have requested that the FCC map add more information, including up-to-date information on where other federal and state funds are being allocated. In January, experts agreed at an event that the federal funds should be better tracked in order to maximize its benefits. “Money goes out from the government in broadband stimulus, but we don’t track where it’s going very well,” said Sarah Oh Lam, senior fellow at the Technology Policy Institute, a federal funded research and development center. “We really don’t know outcomes…and I don’t see many efforts in mandating that we collect data from this [stimulus] round from the grantees that receive money.
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