The National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA) recently unveiled the rules that will apply to $45 billion in broadband funding, opening the door to an influx of investment. However, the rules, which were presented in a series of Notice of Funding Opportunity (NOFO) releases, seem to have raised as many questions as they answered. Speaking at the Mountain Connect conference on Tuesday, NTIA chief Alan Davidson tackled a range of queries in both a keynote session and a media roundtable. Here’s what he had to say about five key issues.
When will the money start flowing?
For many, the question of when money will become available from the $42.5 billion Broadband Equity, Access, and Deployment (BEAD) program and the NTIA’s other new grant programs is top of mind. According to Davidson, the agency expects to start doling out grant money later this year, though likely not from BEAD quite yet.
He noted BEAD funding is tied to the availability of new broadband coverage maps from the Federal Communications Commission (FCC). While these will be more accurate than those in the past, they will “take a little bit of time,” he said. Davidson added the FCC expects to collect data for its new maps this summer and present its findings for a challenge process in the fall. While it’s unclear when exactly the maps will be finished, Davidson said NTIA will be able to allocate money, accept initial broadband plans from states and “move very rapidly after that” to get funding out the door.
Under BEAD rules, NTIA will release the first 20% of a state’s allocated total once it receives the initial plan with the remainder to follow once the state’s final proposal is approved by the agency.
“The good news is it's not like we just have to wait for this [BEAD] and there’s nothing else happening,” Davidson added, pointing to the NTIA’s $1 billion Enabling Middle Mile Broadband Infrastructure and $1.5 billion State Digital Equity Capacity Grant programs.
“We’re launching a middle mile program…that grantmaking is going to happen much more quickly. It’s going to start this year,” he said. “Whether by accident or by design, it’s the right approach. We’ll be doing our middle mile work first. The idea is that’s a force multiplier for our last mile work that we’ll be funding through BEAD.” He added Digital Equity planning grants will also be rolling out in the short term.
Applications or letters of intent for the Digital Equity program are due by July 12 while middle mile applications are due by September 30.
Do the BEAD rules mean unserved and underserved areas are being treated equally?
In a word, no. Davidson noted that some have misinterpreted the BEAD rules as treating unserved and underserved locations the same, but that’s a mistake. Covering unserved areas is still top priority, but he explained that those states which can demonstrate in their broadband plans that they will reach all the unserved will also be able to use funding for underserved areas as well.
“We’re just trying to be really pragmatic about how this is going to roll out,” he said. “The notion that we would do all the grantmaking and build out all of the 25/3 [Mbps] unserved and then come back years later and do the underserved just did not seem practical or the intent of Congress.”
Davidson continued: “States need to demonstrate – and we will hold them to this – that they’re going to reach all the unserved…[but] we expect that there’ll be plenty of states that are gonna, with the money they’ve been given, reach all the unserved and so we want to make sure we give them the opportunity to do these other things.”
Do the BEAD rules mean satellite and other non-fiber services won’t be eligible for funding?
Again, no. It’s true the NTIA in its BEAD rules said it will count areas covered only by satellite broadband or service based on unlicensed spectrum as unserved and also expressed a preference for fiber. However, Davidson said he expects satellite and other non-fiber technologies will receive plenty of funding.
“This is an infrastructure project that’s designed to last for years. And we do put our thumb on the scale on the most resilient, future-proof technologies that we can,” he said. But NTIA knows “there has to be an escape valve for states. And for the really high-cost areas we fully expect that there will be states who have significant portions of other technologies.”
How will the BEAD rules take RDOF coverage into account?
There have been plenty of concerns about whether BEAD will fuel overbuilding of areas set to be covered by RDOF, especially given the decision to classify areas covered with unlicensed spectrum and satellite as unserved. But Davidson said the NOFO guidelines were specifically designed to avoid penalizing states for money that’s expected for deployments which haven’t been built yet. But there will be a screening process to avoid overbuilding, he added.
For the purposes of determining each state’s allocation, Davidson said it will purely rely on the FCC maps, which will detail areas that are served right now. But when states submit their broadband plans, he said the NTIA will insist they don’t use federal funding in areas already approved to receive support from other programs.
That means there’s still time for the FCC to work through its rolling process of approving funding for RDOF winners. In areas where RDOF funding has not been finalized by the FCC, Davidson said he believes other federal grantmakers should be able to make awards.
Will there be further guidance on issues like supply chain rules, workforce requirements and tax status?
Yes! Davidson said there was a lot of information that was not included in the NTIA’s NOFOs and it plans to issue additional guidance around topics such as supply chain and workforce issues. He did say, however, that the NTIA plans to abide by the Buy American requirement passed by Congress, though it fully expects there to be some waivers.
As for the question of whether BEAD and other broadband funding will be counted as taxable income, Davidson said it’s not something that would be addressed in a NOFO but it is “an issue of ongoing conversation within the administration.” He added onlookers can expect to hear and see more on this front going forward.