The U.S. Department of Commerce (DoC) opened applications for $45 billion in broadband funding, kicking off a campaign from President Joe Biden to deliver “Internet for All.” Fiber was front and center in funding guidelines released by the DoC’s National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA), with the agency noting priority will be given to projects which use end-to-end fiber architecture.
The money is part of the $65 billion in broadband funding allocated through the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act (IIJA), which passed in November 2021. It will be distributed through three programs overseen by the NTIA. These include the $42.5 billion Broadband Equity, Access, and Deployment (BEAD) program; the $1 billion Enabling Middle Mile Broadband Infrastructure program; and the $1.5 billion State Digital Equity Act program.
“Generations before us brought electricity to rural America and built the interstate highways. Our generation’s task is to connect all Americans online,” NTIA chief Alan Davidson said in a statement. He added the new programs will “promote Internet access and adoption so that everyone in America has a chance to thrive in the modern economy.”
All three funding pots are open to state and tribal governments, with the middle mile program also open to telecom companies, utilities and non-profit entities. Letters of Intent for BEAD are due by July 18 and initial planning applications for the same must be submitted by August 15. Those looking to participate in the Digital Equity Act program must submit a planning application or letter of intent by July 12, and applications for the middle mile program are due by September 30.
BEAD is designed to help expand high-speed infrastructure to unserved and underserved locations, with the former defined as locations lacking access to speeds of 25 Mbps downstream/3 Mbps upstream and the latter as those without 100/20 Mbps service. In its Notice of Funding Opportunity, the NTIA noted locations which are served exclusively by satellite or service based on unlicensed spectrum will be considered unserved. It encouraged states to plan to deploy end-to-end fiber infrastructure “wherever feasible.”
Each state will be eligible to receive an initial allocation of $100 million from the BEAD program, with the remainder to be determined based on broadband coverage maps that are expected to be released by the Federal Communications Commission later this year. Once the maps become available, the NTIA will issue a Notice of Available Amounts and states will have 180 days to submit an initial proposal detailing how they plan to use the money. NTIA said states should not wait for the notice to begin developing their initial proposals but instead start right away.
States are eligible to receive up to $5 million in initial planning funds to determine their spending priorities and can submit a request for that support either with their letter of intent or by August 15. Those who receive planning funds must submit a five-year action plan within 270 days of getting the money.
Once states have submitted their initial proposals for review, there will be a challenge process and a subgrantee selection process, after which the NTIA will release the first 20% of funding available to the states. The remaining funding will follow once the NTIA approves a final proposal submitted by the states.
Buy American requirement
A number of broadband groups and vendors in recent months urged the NTIA to waive a “Buy American” requirement for the IIJA funding, which specifies products used for broadband deployments must contain at least 55% domestic content. But in the BEAD funding notice, the NTIA reiterated the requirement will apply to all construction materials unless a waiver is granted.
The notice states “the Secretary will seek to minimize waivers, and any waivers will be limited in duration and scope.”
It added BEAD funding may not be used to purchase fiber optic cable or optical transmission equipment manufactured in China without a waiver, nor can it be used to buy equipment from Huawei, ZTE or other vendors banned under the Secure and Trusted Communications Act.
“Waivers of the ban on Chinese-made fiber will be based on a demonstration from the Eligible Entity that application of this prohibition would unreasonably increase the cost of or delay the project or other eligible activities. Waiver applicants will need to provide concrete evidence of this circumstance and will be held to a high burden of proof,” the notice states.
Industry groups including the Fiber Broadband Association, ACA Connects, INCOMPAS and the Telecommunications Industry Association (TIA) hailed the funding notice.
ACA Connects CEO Matthew Polka stated “These Notices set out ground rules that ACA Connects Members – more than 600 smaller, experienced, community-based broadband providers – can work with to achieve what we all want; namely, closing the digital divide once and for all.”
“Fiber is the fuel that powers an all-of-the above broadband strategy as wired, wireless, 5G, and satellite broadband infrastructure all depend on it,” INCOMPAS CEO Chip Pickering added in a separate statement. “We are glad to see NTIA mirror other agencies in their insistence that government funds not be wasted on obsolete networks of the past that simply do not have the bandwidth to power jobs and industries of tomorrow.”
But TIA CEO David Stehlin acknowledged “there is more work to do,” including working out how to reconcile the Buy American requirement with current supply chain realities.
“We fully support growing U.S.-based technology development, manufacturing, and construction, but the reality is ICT supply chains have been globalizing over the last two decades and cannot be moved to the U.S. overnight,” he said. “TIA supports a waiver from these requirements so as to not jeopardize the once in a lifetime investment in America’s digital infrastructure.”