All of the states, territories, and Native American tribes that comprise the United States have been given a historic, once-in-a-generation opportunity to expand and improve internet service within their borders. It's the Broadband Equity, Access, and Deployment program (BEAD). BEAD represents $42.45 billion in grant funding from the $1 trillion Infrastructure bill that is being administered by the National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA). BEAD is designed to fund broadband infrastructure projects that seek to connect locations that are presently unserved (lacking internet service at speeds of 25 megabits-per-second download/3 mbps for upload) and underserved (lacking speeds of 100 mbps download/20 mbps upload).
The NTIA has already made its initial planning funding allocations to the broadband offices of states, territories and tribes (referred to collectively as “states” hereafter), and will announce additional funding allocations throughout the remainder of 2023 — great news for internet service providers (ISPs) and cooperatives seeking to build out broadband infrastructure, and especially their potential customers.
However, securing funding is only the first step. An incredibly complex, multi-stage, and highly-regulated process lies ahead for state broadband offices motivated to take advantage of this opportunity to improve the availability of the most critical infrastructure of the 21st century for their residents.
Now, with small staffs, broadband offices must continue along the process and tackle four other major ongoing work areas:
What if there was a platform that allowed state broadband offices to complete all of these four work areas securely, efficiently, effectively, and easily — without breaking their limited budgets? The good news is, such a platform exists. Read on to learn more about all the tasks and how they can be completed.
As part of the funding requirements, each state, territory, and the District of Columbia must submit a five-year action plan to NTIA that outlines how they will use the funds to achieve the program goals. The plan must address 13 additional requirements, including a needs assessment, a stakeholder engagement strategy, a workforce development plan, a broadband mapping plan, and a performance measurement plan.
It must be informed by collaboration with local and regional entities, such as municipalities, counties, tribes, nonprofits, and broadband providers. Developing a comprehensive and realistic plan that meets all the requirements and reflects the diverse needs and interests of the stakeholders is a complex and time-consuming task that requires coordination and expertise.
Another place where local coordination is important: securing matching funds. A 25% match is required to use all the BEAD program funds. However, some states and territories may face difficulties in raising matching funds from their own budgets and resources. The BEAD program allows matching funds from federal regional commissions and authorities, or from other federal funds that were provided for broadband deployment under previous legislation. Still, government broadband offices must explore alternative ways to secure matching funds, such as public-private partnerships, bonds, or taxes.
But how are you supposed to keep track of all these stakeholders and coordinate between them? If a state broadband office is using a bunch of different tools, they’re likely to become quickly overwhelmed, disorganized, and confused. What’s needed is an all-in-one solution.
Both BEAD and the separate but related federal Recovery Act Capital Projects Fund (CPF) require states to administer a process by which local residents and organizations can challenge the state’s official broadband service map in order to prevent duplication of efforts and to ensure projects are prioritized in accordance with federal eligibility requirements.
Specifically, the NTIA requires all eligible entities to design and conduct their own “transparent, evidence-based, and expeditious” challenge processes separately, before allocating their BEAD funds to subgrantees. The exact timeline for the broadband challenge process will vary depending on when the state filed its initial proposal and when NTIA approves or disapproves it.
First, the state must publicly publish its initial broadband grant proposal and its proposed list of unserved and underserved locations on its website and notify potential challengers of the opportunity to submit challenges. The state will need to launch its public challenge process including clear criteria and procedures for accepting, reviewing, and resolving challenges, and allow 60 days for potential challengers to submit.
The state must consider all timely, valid challenges and update its initial proposal with a list of unserved and underserved locations accordingly. The state must then submit its updated initial proposal with identified unserved and underserved locations to NTIA - along with a summary of the challenges received and how they were resolved.
The NTIA will review the updated initial proposal and the list of unserved and underserved locations and may request additional information or clarification from the state, which the state broadband office is expected to be in a position to provide. Finally, the NTIA will approve or disapprove the updated initial proposal and the list of unserved and underserved locations based on the program requirements and standards.
What information may a state consider from challengers? According to the NTIA, the state broadband office “may decide to accept a broader range of information that may bear on broadband service in an area than is considered in an FCC Broadband Data Collection (BDC) challenge.” In other words, more information than just speed and latency.
The challenge process ensures that the allocation of BEAD program funds addresses the most critical broadband gaps in each state and avoids duplicating or overbuilding existing broadband networks. It also provides an opportunity for local stakeholders to participate in broadband planning and decision-making.
Running the challenge process is a major operation for state broadband offices unto itself: How should states invite and keep track of all challenges and who made them? How can they view, analyze and approve or disapprove of them — using what tools, software, or applications? And how will the state broadband office ensure the security, reliability, and compliance of the challenge process with state and federal guidelines? What’s needed is a platform that is tailor-made for running a challenge process with limited staff, resources, and budget, yet optimizes both openness and security for participants.
Once a state has run its challenge process, it needs to take the final step toward actioning its broadband funds: deciding who is awarded the money.
This involves evaluating applications from potential subgrantee recipients based on how they are best equipped to deploy the funds and responsibly connect the state’s unserved and underserved locations to high-quality, affordable broadband services.
To do this, states must consider:
Again, the question for states becomes, “how do we keep track of all these subgrantee applications and the data contained therein in a secure, easily accessible, and useful way? Spreadsheets and manual data entry won’t cut it with the sheer volume of subgrantee applicants and cross referencing a state will need to do.
Throughout the BEAD Program, NTIA will conduct ongoing monitoring of each state’s progress against its plans and ensure that the requirements of the BEAD program and larger Infrastructure bill are met. States will also be required to comply with reporting requirements and monitor their subgrantees — a lot to place on understaffed and overworked offices.
Among these reporting requirements are an initial report the state must submit to NTIA within 90 days of receiving its BEAD funds. This report should cover how a state intends to use the funds and how those uses comply with the BEAD goals of connecting underserved and unserved locations and ultimately, the entire country to broadband.
States must also submit semi-annual reports to the NTIA, beginning a year after receiving grant funds and continuing till all the funds have been distributed to subgrantees. These semi-annual reports must describe how states are using the funds, the services being provided by them, and the number of locations where broadband service is being made available as a result. States will also need to certify that they are complying with the reporting requirements and any additional ones from the NTIA’s Assistant Secretary.
Subgrantees must submit their own reports to the state at least twice a year, proving effective utilization of the funds they received and describing the progress and purpose of every project they carried out with them; as well as any additional requirements the state decides to impose on them. These subgrantee reports must include a list of service locations, the percentage of customers using the service, and the type of facility being constructed and the speed of the broadband service being offered.
It’s the state’s responsibility to corral these reports and ultimately ensure funds are properly used by subgrantees. That’s another big item on the state broadband office’s long to-do list.
Clearly, states are about to be slammed with work to comply with BEAD. Yet many face hiring caps and limited budgets.
BEAD is the largest broadband program in history, with hundreds of moving parts. But, on average, state broadband offices are staffed with teams of five (5) people. Hiring outside consultants can help. But consultants alone can’t entirely address the challenge as they are typically are limited in the total workload they can take on and time they can devote to a particular project
There are two possible paths for states to walk: succumb to the workload without doing anything to empower themselves and deliver mediocrity (or worse); or, rise to the challenge and get ready with a digital platform that helps their office’s team do the most possible good with granted funds. This program only happens once, and when the money's gone — it’s gone for good — making it all the more imperative for states get their plans and implementations correct on the first try.
Thankfully, there is a turnkey, easy-to-use, flexible and fully customizable solution for states: the Ready Grantor Platform from Ready.net, offering full lifecycle support for every step of their journey. Using this secure, web-based application that is 100% compliant with NTIA and Federal Communications Commission (FCC) guidelines, states have access to a single platform to achieve their broadband vision. Using it, teams can automate many routine tasks and focus on more important decision making, selections and allocations.
Save time, empower your team, follow along with the journey of your grant awardees with integrated reporting, and get the results you need to distribute BEAD funding effectively and in compliance with regulations.
Ready is a Public Benefit Corporation led by a team of computer scientists, data scientists and NTIA alums devoted to helping broadband professionals solve the digital divide.