The American Association of Public Broadband (AAPB), a recently formed organization that advocates for municipal broadband, revealed it has raised over $200,000 in funding from a combination of vendor, public utility and nonprofit groups.
AAPB also made remarks regarding the Notice of Funding Opportunity (NOFO) for the $42.5 billion Broadband Equity, Access, and Deployment (BEAD) program. The organization is concerned the National Telecommunications and Information Administration’s (NTIA) funding guidelines pose a challenge for local and state governments seeking to boost municipal broadband. One of AAPB’s goals is to ensure communities are not “legislatively harmed” by decisions made on the state and federal levels.
“These challenges include a cumbersome application process with a letter-of-credit requirement which serve as steep barriers to entry for local government, nonprofits and small ISPs,” AAPB wrote in a statement. “Additionally, the multi-year rollout of BEAD funds leave many high-speed broadband projects out in the cold, limiting the options for those deploying prior to 2024.”
BEAD is one of three funding programs overseen by the NTIA – along with the $1 billion Enabling Middle Mile Broadband Infrastructure program and the $1.5 billion State Digital Equity Act program. The money from each funding pot comes from the $65 billion in broadband funding allocated through the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act (IIJA), which passed in November 2021.
While NTIA tried to remove some of the barriers to federal funding, said AAPB Secretary Kimberly McKinley at a Mountain Connect press conference today, its guidelines “put up a few more barriers than they probably intended.”
One caveat the NOFO outlined, she explained, was that BEAD applicants must have two years of operational or managerial experience in the broadband space.
“How does a community have that if they’ve never owned or operated a municipal broadband system?” McKinley said, arguing that provision further stifles new market entrants.
An unintended consequence of the letter-of-credit requirement, AAPB Member at Large Bob Knight said at the conference, is smaller communities may struggle to find industry partners to support them in the application process.
“It limits the models that are available to communities that may not have a strong credit rating or reserves,” he said.
Knight referred to comments made by NTIA Administrator Alan Davidson in a press conference earlier on Tuesday, where Davidson noted the NOFO wants to encourage partnerships with ISPs. Knight pointed out while an ISP partnership is beneficial for most communities, it shouldn’t be a requirement for funding.
“Sometimes municipalities want to go at it alone,” Knight said. “Sometimes they need to go at it alone. We want to make sure it’s a level playing field.”
AAPB isn’t the only organization to voice concerns about the funding notice. Fiber Broadband Association CEO Gary Bolton recently told Fierce he is skeptical about one of NTIA’s provisions, which lumps DSL along with cable and fixed wireless as “reliable broadband.”
But McKinley went on to say the NTIA’s BEAD notice is a step in the right direction for bolstering community voices. That's in part because it requires states to certify that they have engaged and coordinated efforts with Tribal groups and local community organizations.
“I think that’s the first time we’ve ever really seen [NTIA] asking the community to get involved,” she said. “I think that’s huge.”
Encouraging community discussion surrounding municipal broadband is key for AAPB. Because AAPB has such a robust membership, McKinley continued, the organization can help connect its members to the people they need to reach.
Further enhancing its community outreach, AAPB announced it’s forming three committees within the organization. These committees will oversee advocacy and policy, education and membership engagement.
The first group will work closely with federal and state legislatures and the second one will help educate community and state leaders about municipal broadband. The membership engagement group encourages AAPB members to become more involved with municipal communities.