State broadband officials race the clock as elections loom

Plans to spend federal dollars to connect underserved populations to the internet could be impacted by state elections, according to broadband policy experts. States are expected to start allocating money to internet service providers next year through the $42.5 billion Broadband Equity, Access and Deployment (BEAD) program. Among the 10 states that got the largest BEAD allocations, three (Missouri, North Carolina and Louisiana) will hold gubernatorial elections before the end of 2024.

Louisiana, which is set to get $1.35 billion in BEAD funding, will elect a new governor before the end of 2023. Democrat Governor John Bel Edwards is term-limited, and pollsters are projecting a party change in state leadership,

Veneeth Iyengar, who runs Louisiana’s broadband program as executive director of ConnectLA, plans to have as much BEAD work as possible done before inauguration day in January. His state was the first to get a BEAD planning award and the first to receive federal approval for Volume 1 of its initial BEAD proposal.

But Iyengar and his team still have a lot of work ahead. The required public comment period for Volume 2 of Louisiana’s initial BEAD proposal ended this week. After comments are incorporated, the plan will go to the National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA) for approval. After that comes a state challenge process and another required approval from NTIA. 

Iyengar plans to have the challenge process complete by the time Louisiana’s next governor comes into office. By early spring of 2024 he hopes all NTIA approvals will be in place so that subgrants to internet service providers can begin. He said he’s tried to lay a strong foundation for his 3-person team, or whoever succeeds them in the ConnectLA office.

“We’ve generated a lot of momentum,” said Iyengar. He said he would like to “stay around” if he has the opportunity to do so under a new administration, but that he’s “always open to opportunities.”

The nature of ConnectLA’s work will change in the year ahead, as the agency transitions from grant applicant to subgrant administrator. Iyengar said that with 2,000 project areas in Louisiana there could be “hundreds of applicants.” The job of picking winners and losers could fall to a new team if Louisiana’s next governor decides to make a change.

Analyst Blair Levin of New Street Research and The Brookings Institution said there doesn’t appear to be a political motivation to change the locations of network builds.

“Louisiana plans to spend all, or close to all, the funds in rural and largely Republican areas,” he said. “Therefore changes with a Republican governor will not likely produce a better outcome for Republicans in terms of where and when the new networks are deployed.”

But Levin added that even if there doesn’t appear to be a political angle to the locations of BEAD builds, politics could still have an impact in some states.

“Rational governing and providing entertainment by claiming to reverse everything the other side did are two different things,” Levin said. He described Mark Robinson, North Carolina’s leading Republican gubernatorial candidate, as part of “the entertainment wing of the party.” 

Levin said North Carolina plans to spend most of its $1.53 billion BEAD allocation in rural areas that tend to vote Republican, but he said that doesn’t necessarily mean a new Republican governor would stick to the current plan. He added that at this time “the odds slightly favor the Democrats” in the North Carolina governor’s race, where the state’s Democrat incumbent governor Roy Cooper is term-limited. 

Missouri, which is set to receive $1.73 billion in BEAD funding, is also holding a 2024 election to replace a term-limited governor. Incumbent Mike Parsons is a Republican, and pollsters are projecting that the state’s next governor will be as well.