AT&T expects broadband grant funding landscape to firm up within 30 days

Communities across the U.S. are struggling to navigate a maze of government funding opportunities for broadband. AT&T’s broadband grant chief told Fierce a key piece of the puzzle is expected to drop in the next 30 days which could help make the path forward much clearer.

Jeff Luong is president of Broadband Access and Adoption and head of AT&T’s quest to secure government grants. He told Fierce state and local officials are still trying to hash out how best to use money allocated by the American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) and Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act (IIJA) to achieve their broadband goals. But there’s a hitch: it’s difficult for communities to decide what to do with their ARPA funding without knowing how they’ll be able to use money from the IIJA’s Broadband Equity, Access and Deployment (BEAD) Program.

BEAD will be the vehicle for $42.45 billion of the $65 billion for broadband allocated by the IIJA. The National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA), which is responsible for distributing that money, began crafting its rules for the program in January. Luong said an initial version of the rules is expected to be unveiled sometime in the next 30 days.

“I think it’ll provide some clarity for a lot communities and states to say ‘ok, now that we understand how the BEAD funding will be utilized and what are the rules around that, then we can determine how aggressive or conservative to be with the ARPA funding,’” he said.

AT&T has already identified over $1 billion in grant opportunities. As the operator works with partners on the state and local levels, Luong said it is encouraging them to take a holistic approach. That means focusing on what their goals and areas of need are first and then lining up the right funding pot after.

“What we’re advocating I think is it’s not an either/or. It’s how do you use both,” he explained. “There are going to be some areas that are a great fit for BEAD funding. Then there are going to be certain areas that we might want to use the Capital Projects fund for or State and Local Fiscal Recovery funds for. And then we also have communities that are willing to use – we actually have talked to a lot local communities that are willing to use their own general funds to support this.”

While the needs of each community vary widely, Luong said several of AT&T’s early grant wins have been with local governments that were seeking a one-and-done rollout covering both un- and underserved areas. He specifically pointed to its deals covering nearly all of Oldham County, Kentucky and Vanderburgh County, Indiana as examples.

“They don’t want somebody to go in there, build a patchwork of fiber to serve unserved areas and then two, three, five years from now then as speed demands increase now the underserved areas become unserved areas,” he said. “It’s an issue that they constantly have to face every couple of years. For these two communities, they said I just want to solve this problem one time.”

Luong noted communities are looking for partners to do more than just build networks. Many are also looking for help with digital literacy, increasing adoption, wireless capabilities and security. Long-term management and upgrade capabilities are also selling points, he added.