The National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA) wants to let broadband grant winners from two key programs sidestep “Buy American” requirements currently tied to the money. In proposals submitted to the U.S. Department of Commerce (DoC) last month, the NTIA sought waivers for its $1 billion Middle Mile grant and $268 million Connecting Minority Communities Pilot programs. However, it does not yet appear to have submitted any waiver requests for the much larger $42.5 billion Broadband Equity, Access, and Deployment (BEAD) program.
The Buy American requirements in question would force awardees to use products and materials that contain at least 55% domestic content. For months, telecom industry players have been petitioning the NTIA to waive those rules, arguing they are impossible to meet and will slow broadband deployments. Though their requests have primarily been focused on the BEAD program, it does appear the NTIA is listening.
NTIA said in its Middle Mile waiver proposal that a joint assessment conducted with the DoC found the Buy American requirements would have a “particularly significant” impact on the program. Specifically, it found a large portion of middle mile network equipment is produced outside of the U.S. and there are only limited options available to meet Buy American requirements. Other materials, including fiber optics and semiconductors, are also “not available in the quantity or quality needed.”
“DoC’s initial assessment indicates that industry will not be able to address shortages of the manufactured products and construction materials required for middle mile network deployment within the timeframes required by the MMG Program,” NTIA wrote in the filing.
It proposed a waiver covering broadband routing and switching equipment, microwave backhaul gear, optical fiber transport equipment, optical line terminals, undersea cable systems, field test gear and telemetry switches. The waiver would last for 12 months from March 1, 2023 to March 1, 2024 and those covered by the waiver would have to report the purchase of equipment from foreign sources.
The DoC is accepting comments on the proposed waiver through the end of the day on Monday, October 3.
Like BEAD, the Middle Mile Grant program was created by the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act (IIJA). But NTIA also sought a six-month waiver of the Buy American requirements for the Connecting Minority Communities Pilot Program, which was created as part of the Consolidated Appropriations Act of 2021.
Specifically, it requested a general applicability waiver for “for all iron, steel, manufactured products, and construction materials, with the exception of fiber optic glass and fiber optic cables, used in infrastructure projects funded through” the program. As in the Middle Mile proposal, NTIA said those covered by the waiver would be required to report the purchase of items from foreign sources.
Comments on that proposal are also being accepted through October 3.
It is unclear whether NTIA plans to submit a waiver request for the BEAD program. In August, Telecommunications Industry Association (TIA) CEO Dave Stehlin told Fierce such a move was imminent. The waiver request for the Connecting Minority Communities Pilot program was subsequently filed on September 19. It could be that the NTIA feels it has more time to submit a BEAD waiver request given it won’t have the maps it needs to calculate BEAD allocations until 2023.