States' BEAD excitement tempered by execution, mapping worries

After much anticipation the White House this week announced the amount of funding that will be allocated to each state as part of the National Telecommunications and Information Administration’s (NTIA) $42.5 billion Broadband Equity, Access and Deployment (BEAD) program.

The BEAD allocations were generally well received, with many government officials calling the investment "historic" for their state broadband expansion efforts.

States’ earlier estimates for how much funding they would receive were mostly accurate. Delaware announced $107 million in federal funding, which was “in alignment” with what the state was estimated to receive, a Delaware Department of Technology and Information rep told Fierce.

Some states received even more BEAD funding than was expected.

“We are very happy with the $826.5 million from the BEAD program, it's more than we anticipated,” said a rep for the Colorado Broadband office, adding that allocations across the country seem “fair based on population size and need.”

The Colorado rep called the BEAD investment “crucial to building a connected and prosperous Colorado,” and said the state will now turn its focus to developing its five-year plan to spend BEAD funding and start deploying the money in 2024.

Now that BEAD allocations have been announced, each state has 180 days to submit initial proposals describing how they plan to run their grant programs. Initial proposals can be submitted beginning July 1. Once NTIA approves a state’s initial proposal, that state will be able to request access to at least 20% of its BEAD allotment.

But as states pull together plans for the NTIA, there is still apprehension surrounding the extensive broadband buildouts needed across the country.

Will BEAD be enough?

Concerns linger over whether BEAD funding will be enough to truly bridge the digital divide, and there are doubts about the accuracy of the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) maps that will determine where funding is designated within each state.

“This is great news for our state,” said U.S. Senator Raphael Warnock, D-Ga., speaking of the $1.3 billion Georgia was awarded in BEAD funding.

Yet Warnock also raised concerns about the accuracy of the FCC’s mapping system. According to him, up to 220,000 locations in Georgia that lack high-speed internet service may be missing from the map.

And Georgia is not alone. The FCC map is a concern for broadband offices across the country.

West Virginia leaned into the FCC’s mapping challenge process announced last year, and its Broadband Council has focused on broadband mapping and speed testing for several years, said Kelly Workman, director of West Virginia’s Office of Broadband.

Workman told Fierce that following West Virginia’s over $1.2 billion BEAD allocation, the state’s broadband office will continue to refine its mapping data to ensure that all federal and state programs are coordinated.

Officials are urging their citizens to help collect broadband data as well. The Kansas Office of Broadband Development, for example, is encouraging their residents to participate by completing speed tests of their own and submitting results to help improve the state's data.

Despite those efforts, experts remain skeptical over whether the funding will be enough for the proper implementation of a nationwide broadband buildout.

For instance, Iowa received $415.3 million from the Biden administration to serve around 84,000 residents living in the state without internet connection. Dave Duncan, CEO of the Iowa Communications Alliance, told the Des Moines Register that might not cut it.

"Is it enough money to give most people in Iowa some connection to the Internet? We'll see," Duncan said. "Those remaining unserved locations really are the toughest to serve, and they're the most expensive.”

Organizations like WISPA have called for diligence to ensure the funding that has already been committed goes well spent.

WISPA President and CEO David Zumwalt said the announcement marked “an important milestone” for BEAD rollouts. Yet he noted “much work lies ahead” in getting everyone across the country connected.

“All solutions should be on the table. Pernicious and wasteful overbuilding must be strenuously avoided,” Zumwalt added. “Access to the state grant process should work to truly invite small players so more answers can be brought to bear on this national challenge. Clarifying these and other matters will improve the program for all involved, especially those who lack broadband.”

And other organizations have laid out even heavier criticism, like Taxpayers Protection Alliance (TPA), an advocacy nonprofit that monitors federal spending, which said the BEAD program “is just the latest of the federal government’s over-complicated network of broadband-funding programs, which have already proved susceptible to waste, abuse and overbuilding.”

TPA Executive Director Patrick Hedger argued that because the White House “opted against a technologically neutral approach,” it will make broadband builds costlier and result in “more Americans remaining unconnected for longer.”

“TPA encourages states to reject much of the Biden administration’s approach,” he stated. “Instead, they should adopt light-touch, technologically neutral, market-oriented strategies that will fully leverage private enterprise instead of hamstringing it.”