On Monday, January 10, 2022, the National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA) posted a request for comments in the Federal Register inviting the public to submit comments regarding the implementation of broadband programs created by the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act (IIJA). The following responses are a condensed summary of the comments submitted by Lit Communities Broadband, Inc.:
We recommend that NTIA define “access”, “adoption”, “digital equity” and “digital inclusion” uniformly so that all states can integrate those definitions into their 5-year plans, initial and final proposals. Current baseline data can be identified to determine which indicators best capture adoption, affordability, digital equity, and digital inclusion and NTIA should require these metrics be included in their respective letters of intent, 5-year plans, initial and final proposals. Subrecipients who apply to the States should be rated, ranked, and funded based on meeting these goals to ensure that all projects and programs are consistent with the Act and make incremental progress towards these outcomes.
To ensure that all voices and perspectives are incorporated into the rulemaking and implementation process, States should be required to undergo a public comment process, similar to those utilized in transportation, water, sanitary sewer, etc. and include documentation on how input was gathered, responded to, and incorporated into the respective plans (as applicable). Similar to the EPA’s State Revolving Fund Programs and requirements for public comment prior to approval of Intended Use Plans, States should be required to solicit feedback from eligible entities (public and private) and incorporate these aspects into their finalized plans.
To demonstrate the IIJA’s funding and investment impacts in broadband, grant recipients should be required to collect a range of data regarding project expenditures and completion, locations served (Census Block level), geospatial data, pricing and speed tiers offered, and any data requested to demonstrate alignment and progress towards meeting the goals established. NTIA should also work diligently to States to ensure that duplication of funding is avoided prior to all grant awards. Applications for all state and federal funding should include a question regarding any pending applications submitted, funding amount requested, high-level scope and project location(s). NTIA should also encourage the formation of State-level interagency workgroups composed of the varying funders (both State and Federal) where they can meet and discuss pending applications and on-going projects to ensure coordination and non-duplication of efforts.
Technical assistance provided to the States should be focused on programmatic administration and overall portfolio management of NTIA funded investments. States that are failing to meet the goals established by NTIA should be offered Technical assistance to identify deficiencies, develop solutions to address areas of weakness and assist with implementation of those efforts. Technical assistance provided to localities, prospective sub-grantees, and others should be focused on identifying eligible project areas, utilization of existing GIS data to corroborate data/findings, assistance identifying unserved and underserved areas (Census Blocks and Census Tracts), and for entities who lack the Financial, Managerial, and Technical competencies, provide assistance with application preparation and project development (cost estimates, feasibility studies, etc.).
Prior to the State’s award of subgrants, NTIA should be given an opportunity to review each State’s methodology for preparing fundable projects lists, ensure that public comments were solicited and incorporated into 5-year, initial and final proposals, and evaluation of overall project readiness to avoid unliquidated funding obligations. Specifically, NTIA should consider the following criteria when evaluating a state or territory’s process:
For subrecipients who are economically disadvantaged or distressed, NTIA should consider additional subsidization to assist with the grant match (i.e. reducing the match based on demonstration of economic or financial circumstances). When considering the circumstances to waive matching requirements, NTIA should consider rurality (homes passed per mile), lower than average median household income, and high unemployment demographic data. Additionally, NTIA should consider whether the applicant has exhausted its funding capacity in terms of general fund balance, debt capacity, and ability to provide the match without causing undue hardship on the applicant.
NTIA must acknowledge that the lack of a workforce to implement projects funded by the IIJA can have a significant impact on the ability of a subrecipient to complete their project on a timely basis, ultimately delaying the provisioning of broadband services to unserved/underserved residents, businesses and community anchor institutions. Workforce and supply-chain constraints will not be restricted to just outlier areas. Rather, these challenges exist across the entire country and might possibly be even more severe in rural or economically distressed areas who are likely already dealing with population decline, reduced labor workforce, and/or lack of trained and skilled personnel. Irregardless of location, providers of all sizes will be faced with these challenges, especially those with existing operations below capacity.
To mitigate the impact of workforce or supply chain limitations, NTIA should consider requiring States to include workforce training/skill development and supply chain considerations and analysis in their 5-year, initial and final proposals. State-level plans and proposals should clearly identify known gaps in the network development and deployment process and provide goals for increasing the respective capacities, i.e. prioritizing installation technicians, and also be provided with the ability to allocate a portion of their funding toward increasing workforce development training and skills development. Rather than a good faith effort to provide equitable access to jobs tied to network deployment, grant funding and/or incentives should be made to providers and public entities to increase workforce development capacity and availability of skilled personnel.
Regarding the use of American-made network components, NTIA should work with the Department of Labor and other broadband funders to forecast areas where shortages exist and provide tax incentives for American manufacturers to fill those gaps in the supply chain and analyze any potential impacts on increased deployment cost. Nationally sourced materials and components are a great idea, however we should be considerate that potentially inflated costs will result in less projects funded through the IIJA. Buy American requirements have a great purpose and impact on our economy, but they should be balanced with national supply chain shortages. The last scenario we want to experience is even longer delays or significantly increased costs simply to meet this requirement.
We recommend that NTIA require applications to include financial modeling and projections to demonstrate a network’s fiscal sustainability, with and without federal or state grant funding. State’s should avoid awarding funding to projects that fail to demonstrate how they will financially be supported through revenue derived from the network’s subscribers. Applicants should be prepared to identify the number of unserved and underserved households, businesses and anchor institutions and demonstrate how the proposed project solution will reach those locations. States should incentivize applicants (through additional points or funding) who propose projects in the communities that are the least connected and review American Community Survey, FCC Form 477 data, Speed Tests, etc. to determine which areas face accessibility or affordability barriers.
Prior buildout commitments should be incorporated into the new FCC and state-level broadband maps to avoid unnecessary duplication of funding efforts. Applicants proposing projects in areas with prior or existing buildout commitments should be prepared to describe how their solution does not duplicate efforts. NTIA could coordinate with other federal and state broadband agencies to maintain an up-to-date list of current projects under construction through data from progress reports and increased project oversight. Upon completion of these existing buildout commitments, NTIA should request data from the funded entity to verify that the network was built to the standards it committed to, i.e. prove that access is universally available in the respective location.
NTIA should strongly consider designating the use of BEAD funding to support the development of accredited workforce training and certification programs as a mechanism to address the current labor shortage in the broadband industry. Another consideration could include a funding option for planning and design of eligible networks that are not ready to proceed to construction or who lack the funding to support pre-construction activities to assist entities who can not undertake project development until financial assistance is provided. Once an eligible project has been designed and planned, the entity can approach NTIA, State, or other funding agencies for the construction phase.
Through a transparent public comment process, States should require all pertinent stakeholders and state agencies to review and comment on 5-year, initial and final proposals to understand how the funding and respective projects could potentially complement their efforts and determine if there are opportunities to collaborate and/or leverage existing assets and infrastructure. State agencies that should be involved with the development of State plans include: Education, Transportation, Emergency Management, Health Services, Parks and Wildlife, State Library Agencies/Commissions, Water, Workforce Development, Public Utility Commission, Environmental Quality, and Comptroller of Public Accounts.
Regarding the inclusion of tribal governments, NTIA could clarify which recognized tribal entities should participate in the planning development process, i.e. recognized tribes as defined under existing federal law. Once tribal entities have been identified, States should make a diligent effort to coordinate with representatives from each group and encourage them to participate in the broadband planning process, specifically identifying unserved and underserved locations within their respective boundaries. Lastly, States should document how they facilitated the coordination described above and confirm if those needs were captured into their plans and funding list.
For ease during implementation, we recommend that the eligible subscriber definition be consistent with programs such as the Affordable Connectivity Program (ACP) and Lifeline programs. Ideally, BEAD funding recipients should be required to participate in the ACP or Lifeline as a condition for funding and recommend that the existing factors that qualify an individual or household under the Lifeline or Affordable Connectivity Program mirror the eventual definition of an eligible subscriber under NTIA’s rulemaking and program implementation.
Rather than each State independently defining an eligible subscriber and developing its own low-cost option, NTIA should encourage states to require participation in existing subsidy programs. If the States are seeking to allocate a portion of their BEAD funding for additional low-cost subsidy funding capacity, we recommend that they mirror the existing definitions, eligibility and programs to avoid situations where a household might qualify under the ACP program, but not under a different State definition. Defining a baseline standard definition for both an eligible subscriber and low-cost broadband service option provides a great benefit to States and providers, creates a uniform approach for implementing the requirement, and complements existing subsidy programs such as Lifeline, High Cost, and Affordable Connectivity Program.
Millions of residents and businesses only have a single option for broadband service which artificially creates an environment where affordability is not a concern for the incumbent provider. Additionally, offering affordable broadband options should not translate into the lowest possible speed tier being made available to qualified individuals that is inherently below the necessary speed threshold.
Open Access Networks could create a more balanced playing field in terms of access and reasonable cost and should be targeted where no middle mile exists currently. For areas where middle mile facilities exist, but are more expensive to the provider, consider a subsidy that can offset the economic challenge. Utilizing Middle Mile grant funding could be effective in reducing a portion of the CapEx that would otherwise be paid for by the providers.
When prioritizing middle mile grant applications, leveraging existing rights-of-way, assets, and infrastructure to minimize financial, regulatory, and permitting challenges should be given greater weight to prioritize applications that will create the biggest impact for the least amount of funding requested. Connection of community anchor institutions are important and considerable weight should be given to projects that directly connect unserved/underserved schools, libraries, hospitals, and essential community facilities. With respect to technical assistance or guidance provided, NTIA should consider providing recurring webinars regarding the Indicators of Broadband Need mapping data aggregated and how to identify eligible project areas. NTIA should also consider steering technical assistance towards applicants who lack the financial, managerial, and technical competencies to identify eligible projects, develop project opportunities and implement projects funded through the program.
One example of a successful deployment by a non-traditional provider is Medina Fiber and its partnership with the Medina County Economic Development Corporation and Medina County Fiber Network to deploy FTTH in rural areas of Medina County, Ohio. Medina County is also leveraging $11 million in ARPA funding to expand network infrastructure to unserved and underserved areas. Another example is the Rail Trail project in York County, Pennsylvania, funded with CARES Act funding and utilized a recreational trail to deploy Middle Mile infrastructure. York County is leveraging $25 million in ARPA funding to construct an open access, middle mile network with seven rings which can be utilized by multiple ISPs to provide fiber Internet service to residents and businesses.
Greater consideration should be given to fiber networks built using the latest Gigabit PON technologies to support last mile residential and commercial speeds of 1 Gbps, 10 Gbps, and even higher as needed. NTIA should also require multiple-ring architecture that provides exceptional reliability and redundancy to “self-heal” and route data traffic around the other side of the fiber ring. NTIA should require the placement of extra fiber capacity into networks to support growth of residential and business customers but also future technologies such as IoT, wireless, and Smart City applications for transportation, public utilities, environmental, public safety/emergency response and smart agriculture.