The current challenge presented by the passage of the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act (IIJA) in November 2021 is mapping which communities need assistance, allocating the necessary funding, working with states and building the staff to complete the mission to deliver 100 megabits per second (Mbps) download / 20 Mbps upload broadband speeds for every home in the U.S. The IIJA allocates $65 billion toward closing the digital divide, delivering broadband to those who lack it.
The IIJA calls for the National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA), which is part of the U.S. Department of Commerce, to make key decisions in any area where there is ambiguity in the IIJA as its programs advance.
“[W]e’ve been talking about the digital divide in this country for over 20 years,” Alan Davidson, assistant secretary of commerce for communications and information and head of NTIA, said Wednesday in an interview with telecommunications attorney Drew Clark, Broadband Breakfast CEO, at Broadband Breakfast’s most recent weekly luncheon. “Finally, thanks to [IIJA], we’ve finally been given the resources to do something really serious and structural to close the digital divide — [a] once in a generation [or] once in a lifetime [opportunity]. This is like rural electrification. This is like building the interstate highway system.”
Allocating broadband funding is just one of NTIA’s jobs. It also works on federal spectrum policy, international internet policy, such as cybersecurity and privacy, 5G vendor diversity, public safety communications and the election of a new head of the International Telecommunication Union, which could be led by a woman for the first time, Davidson said.
NTIA is responsible for six U.S. broadband programs totaling $48.3 billion as part of the IIJA’s broadband funding: the Broadband Equity, Access and Deployment (BEAD) program worth $42.5 billion to bring access to homes; the Enabling Middle Mile Broadband Infrastructure Program worth $1 billion; $2 billion for the Tribal Broadband Connectivity Program; and $2.8 billion for Digital Equity Act Programs.
Mapping unserved and underserved areas
Under BEAD, NTIA allocates money to the states, which then issue grants.
The first step is for the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) to map the unserved and underserved areas. Unserved areas are defined as those that lack 25/3 Mbps broadband; underserved areas lack 100/20 Mbps broadband.
“In the past, as you all know, the maps have kind of sucked,” Davidson said. “Using census blocks as our basis is not the kind of granularity that we need in this day and age,” he added, referring to previous maps that identified an entire census block as being served with 100/20 Mbps service if just one internet service provider advertised such service as available to one home there, for example.
Each state receives $100 million — with territories getting $25 million — plus an allocation based on the percentage of unserved locations in that state, Davidson said.
The IIJA calls for funding recipients to match at least 25% of funds received with privately-sourced money. If funds need to be stretched, Davidson noted that the 25% match requirement is a floor, not a ceiling, and that providers may choose to contribute up to 50% of funds allocated to a project. The FCC’s reverse auction last year for its Rural Digital Opportunity Fund (RDOF) “gave us some interesting data about what providers at least said they would be willing to do — I’ve read that the average is north of a 50% match in RDOF,” he said.
The IIJA requires unserved areas to be funded first, Clark noted, but some projects will cover both unserved and underserved areas. By the end of the process, 100% of homes in the U.S. will have access to 100/20 Mbps broadband, Davidson said.
To reach the 100% goal, broadband leaders in each state will have to file their state’s plan, Davidson said, noting that 46 of 50 states and all the territories participated in a recent meeting.
“Do you have any indication that some states won’t file an acceptable plan,” Clark asked.
“There’s a need for political leadership to engage and understand the importance of this,” Davidson said. “This is a win-win. There’s not a state that won’t win from this program in some way.”
And the NTIA is hiring, Davidson said.