Doug Dawson

The Digital Equity Challenge

It’s hard to look anywhere in the broadband industry today and not hear about digital inclusion. One big reason for this is the two giant grant programs created by Congress in the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act to tackle digital equity issues. The first is the State Digital Equity Capacity Grant Program, that will allocate $1.5 billion to the States for this program – that’s $300 million per year from 2022 through 2026. The second is the Digital Equity Competitive Grant Program.

Private Equity and Rural Fiber

I’ve been asked three or four times in the last few weeks why anybody would invest in building rural broadband networks with the goal of getting rich. I’ve been hearing the same rumors as everybody else that there are private equity investors ready to jump into the rural grant arena. I have no specific knowledge that this is going to occur, but I’ve run across several internet service providers (ISPs) recently who claim to have access to nearly unlimited equity funding.

The Municipal Broadband Battle

The Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act made it clear that Broadband Equity, Access, and Deployment (BEAD) Program grants should be made available to everybody—commercial entities, non-profit entities, Tribes, and municipal entities. But there will be an eventual showdown since many states have barriers or restrictions against municipal participation in building, owning, or operating commercial broadband networks. If there is any one area where politics creep into building broadband, it is with state restrictions on municipalities.

The Extra Costs of BEAD Funding

There are a lot of extra costs for a broadband provider to accept Broadband Equity, Access, and Deployment (BEAD) Program funding including Environmental and Historic Preservation Reviews, Letters of Credit, Prevailing Wages, Requirements on Contractors, Reporting Requirements, and Taxes. I have to laugh when I look at these requirements and see that reaching that single remote location might get layered with hundreds of thousands of dollars of extra costs. The biggest drawback of expensive grant compliance is that it drives up the cost of every grant project.

More Rural Digital Opportunity Fund Controversy

Recently, the Minnesota Telephone Alliance and the Minnesota Rural Electric Association asked the Minnesota Public Utilities Commission to revoke the Eligible Telecommunications Carrier (ETC) status for LTD Broadband. ETC staus must awarded by a state regulatory authority or by the Federal Communications Commission to any carrier that wants to collect funding from the FCC’s Universal Service Fund. The petition stems from LTD being the winner in the Rural Digital Opportunity Fund (RDOF) auction in Minnesota to receive $311 million to bring broadband to 102,000 passing in the state.

Is Cable Broadband Equal to Fiber?

Charter CEO Tom Rutledge said of a cable broadband comparison to fiber: "The idea that this technology [fiber] is transformative and superior is just dead wrong. It’s just another form of transmission.” There are mountains of facts that say that Rutledge is wrong. First, Charter is expanding its network around the country either through self-funding to reach areas just outside of the traditional cable territories, or by pursuing grants and subsidies, such as with the $1.2 billion that Charter claimed in the 2020 RDOF reverse auction.

Get Ready for the Challenge Process

There is one interesting aspect of the Broadband Equity, Access and Deployment (BEAD) Program grants that could impact any rural community that is hoping to find a broadband solution from the $42.5 billion BEAD grant process. The National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA) is allowing local governments to challenge the broadband maps that will be used to determine the areas that are eligible for the grants. This is something that communities should be getting ready for today.

The Busy Hour and Data Caps

As states are getting ready to create their broadband plans for the National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA)’s $42.5 billion Broadband Equity, Access and Deployment (BEAD) Program grants, we’re starting to see some interesting arguments being made by incumbents to influence state broadband plans. One of the aspects of the BEAD plan that hasn’t been discussed much yet is that the NTIA is stressing affordability. For example, the NOFO states several times that states must develop a middle-class rate plan.

Future-Proofing Federal Broadband Grants

There has been a lot of discussion in the last few months about how wonderful it was for Congress to have increased the speed requirements for broadband grant eligibility to 100/20 Mbps in the $42.5 billion Broadband Equity, Access and Deployment (BEAD) Program grants. If we accept that 25/3 Mbps was a good definition for download speed in 2015 and that 100/20 Mbps is a good definition in 2022, then that is an acknowledgment that the demand for download broadband speed has grown at about 21 percent per year.

Another Broadband Equity, Access and Deployment Program Grant Complication

The National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA)'s definition of reliable broadband service in the Broadband Equity, Access and Deployment (BEAD) Program grant rules says that any grant cannot be used to overbuild a reliable broadband technology that meets or exceeds the 100/20 Mbps speed threshold of the grants.