AT&T thinks its public-private fiber builds could be a model for BEAD projects

AT&T has made a point of pursuing public-private partnership agreements in recent months, striking deals in Indiana, Kentucky and Texas. Jeff Luong, AT&T President of Broadband Access and Adoption, told Fierce work on a project in Vanderburgh County, Indiana is running ahead of schedule, with the first customers having been connected in July. He added its builds in the county and elsewhere provide a template for what might be achieved through future projects funded by forthcoming funds from the $42.5 billion Broadband Equity, Access, and Deployment (BEAD) program.

The operator announced its partnership with Vanderburgh County almost exactly a year ago, but construction didn’t start immediately. That’s because it took about a month for the pair to sign a final contract agreement. However, once the ball got rolling, it quickly picked up speed. According to Luong, AT&T has already connected about 2,000 of the 20,000 customers it has committed to serve. It expects to reach the remainder by the end of 2023.

Thus far, Luong said the partnership arrangement is “playing out really well,” with permitting running smoothly and the operator working with the county to address resident concerns around construction. As a result AT&T’s work is “actually ahead of schedule,” and it expects to “meet, if not exceed” its commitments to the county,” Luong said.

The executive noted that in addition to the publicly announced partnerships in Indiana, Kentucky and Texas, AT&T has won a handful of other deals it hasn’t disclosed. While these agreements aren’t necessarily material to AT&T’s broader plan to reach 30 million-plus locations with fiber, they are important for two key reasons. First, the builds help connect un- and underserved communities. And second, they provide a template that can be replicated in other communities with BEAD money, especially since many already leverage federal funding.

For instance, AT&T’s project in Vanderburgh County is funded by $9.9 in federal funds made available to the county through the American Rescue Plan Act. The operator is covering the remaining $29.7 million in project costs.

“I think these public-private partnerships are a model for what we could do with BEAD,” Luong said. “It’s our intention to participate if the rules are conducive to the type of public-private partnerships we are implementing today with the ARPA money.”

Allocation of BEAD funding is dependent on the release of new broadband coverage maps from the Federal Communications Commission. The National Telecommunications and Information Administration, which is charged with running the BEAD program, has said it doesn’t expect those maps to be available until early next year.

Luong said AT&T’s current expectation is that funding from BEAD programs will begin flowing sometime in the middle to second half of 2023.