DENVER, CO – As state leaders forge proposals for Broadband, Equity, Access and Deployment (BEAD) funding local stakeholders are imploring them not to forget about the role of community anchor institutions (CAI).

CAIs are rooted entities such as hospitals, schools, universities and government agencies that drive economic growth and social welfare in their communities.

“If you're building out to those unserved homes, and there are anchor institutions, you might as well connect the anchors while you're there,” said John Windhausen, founder and executive director of the Schools, Health & Libraries Broadband (SHLB) Coalition.

The SHLB Coalition is a proponent of deploying high-capacity broadband, “to and through” CAIs to meet the needs of the residential population in the community.

The coalition got involved while Congress created the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs (IIJA) act a couple of years ago, resulting in anchor institutions being referenced 29 times in legislation for the BEAD program. Windhausen said the legislation “strongly encourages” NTIA and the states to provide funding for anchor institutions to bring them up to at least gigabit speed.

“In some cases, you may want to build that big broadband pipe to the anchor institution first, because that makes it easier to then extend service to the whole community,” Windhausen told a panel audience at Mountain Connect 2023 this week.

“But now we're in this kind of tricky, difficult world of implementation,” he added. While the SHLB thinks that using CAIs as a “jumping off point” for broadband expansion makes economic sense, state broadband offices and other stakeholders will have to be “a little bit more creative in how [they] look at that legislative BEAD language.”

With their respective BEAD allocations now known, states are tasked with submitting both an initial proposal and a final proposal to the NTIA before they actually have access to funding.  

Also at the Mountain Connect panel was Judson Cary, Colorado’s assistant attorney general of broadband. Cary said CAIs are one area in the BEAD legislation where the NTIA gave states “a little bit of flexibility.”

For part of their BEAD proposal, states must define what they consider a CAI. If a state’s definition deviates from the NTIA’s definition, they must justify any changes.

Colorado took the NTIA definition and “glommed on a couple extra things that we thought might be important,” Cary noted. Among the state’s add-ons are correctional facilities, which he said approached the Colorado Broadband Office for funding. Under the state’s Capital Projects Program, correctional facilities are not a qualified applicant, because they're a state agency.

“We wanted to make sure they were covered here under BEAD,” Cary said.  

Under the NTIA’s rules, CAIs can be funded through BEAD, but states must prove they have enough funds for their unserved and unserved populations first and foremost. Although, states “don't have to burn through your unserved money, and burn through your underserved money and then serve CAIs,” Cary explained – “Your plan just has to show yeah, I have the money to do it, and then you can start building to CAIs immediately.”

Colorado already has several examples of successful broadband expansion either “through” or “to” CAIs, including in Boulder, where the school district put antennas on roofs of school buildings and arranged a contract with wireless internet service provider (WISP) Livewire to provide free wireless broadband service to low-income communities in the area.

Northwest Colorado Broadband (NCB), a non-profit organization located in Steamboat Springs, formed in 2012 as a consortium of school districts, medical centers and power authorities in the area. NCB was a key partner of the Northwest Colorado Council of Governments (NWCCOG), an association of county and municipal governments, which in 2020 launched a 400-mile fiber network for access to 14 mountain communities.

And in the southern part of the state, CSU Pueblo recently applied for the Connecting Minority Communities grant – funding only available for educational institutions that serve minority students.

While CSU Pueblo already has multi-gigabit connectivity, the CMC grant will connect households within a 15-mile radius of the university and contribute to internet education programs for local individuals and businesses.

“One of our fears is that the anchor institutions get forgotten about in this BEAD process when actually, they're an instrumental part of the success of the BEAD program,” said Windhausen, who added the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) “did not do a good job of mapping the anchor institutions.”

While the FCC said it is unable to make any updated to the CAI map going forward, Windhausen said the NTIA’s challenge guidance document, issued this summer, might help the accuracy of the map by giving states the authority to identify anchor institutions and put them on their state maps. Additionally, the guidance document says the states can defer to the anchor institutions to evaluate their own broadband availability.

Windhausen said of the NTIA rules, “That's a really important development. We think that helps improve the situation dramatically for anchor institutions going forward.”