The $42.5 billion Broadband Equity, Access and Deployment (BEAD) program is top of mind right now, as states kick off their challenge process to figure out which locations need to be covered by BEAD projects.

But what exactly is the BEAD challenge process and what steps must ISPs take to make sure they’re not building in a location that’s covered by another BEAD-funded service provider?

Tarana Wireless hosted a webinar this week to address these questions for ISPs. Gabriel Moran, government affairs and policy associate at Tarana, said a lot of the discussion surrounding the BEAD program has “overlooked and sometimes [misunderstood] the significance of the steps that make up the pre-bid process.”

Moran explained in the conversations Tarana’s had with ISPs (particularly wireless providers), “many folks have indicated they do not intend to submit project bid applications as part of the BEAD program.”

“It’s understandable. The BEAD process in itself is very complicated,” he said. “It’s very resource intensive from the respective of time and finances.”

Still, Moran argued participating in the BEAD challenge process is “crucial,” even if an ISP doesn’t plan to submit a BEAD bid. The process is an opportunity “to help prevent any sort of BEAD overbuild from threatening [an ISP’s] network.

It’s also an opportunity for ISPs “to capitalize on offensive growth opportunities that frankly, may no longer exist after the BEAD program is finished.”

He broke down the BEAD challenge process into five steps. First, state broadband offices publish an initial list of broadband serviceable locations (BSLs) and community anchor institutions that they believe are eligible for BEAD-funded projects.

This information is published as part of volume one of a state’s initial BEAD proposal. Once NTIA approves volume one for a state, ISPs, tribal governments, units of local government and nonprofit organizations can submit challenges to the list of tentative eligible locations via the state’s challenge portal.

Usually, a state accepts challenges for around 30 days, but that length of time can vary state-by-state.

“Once a challenge has been made to a given set of broadband serviceable locations, these challenges have to be made visible to the relevant internet service provider,” Moran said.

When a state broadband office receives a challenge, it will then allow eligible challenge participants to submit a rebuttal. If a challenged location receives a rebuttal, “the status of that location is then changed to dispute it.”

If a challenge does not receive a rebuttal during the rebuttal period, which also lasts around 30 days, then the challenge is sustained. Once a state’s completed the rebuttal process, the broadband office then has to “adjudicate the various challenges and rebuttals” to approve or reject potential challenges. For most states, this last step is a rolling process.

Why does the BEAD challenge process matter to ISPs?

Some ISPs are particularly “vulnerable” to BEAD overbuilds, Moran went on to say, such as providers that aren’t meeting the NTIA’s definition of “reliable broadband service.”

“For instance, if you’re using unlicensed fixed wireless, you would be considered to be using unreliable broadband technologies,” he said, thus those BSLs may be considered unserved or underserved.

Same goes for a provider that’s not offering speeds of at least 100/20 Mbps or has a “round-trip latency” of less than or equal to 100 milliseconds.

“There are folks who have service offerings using reliable broadband that are just not captured on their state broadband maps,” said Moran.

As for how ISPs can exactly determine any “network vulnerabilities,” he encouraged providers to obtain a CostQuest Tier D License.  CostQuest is the vendor that provides the BSL Location Fabric data to the FCC’s broadband map.

This license, available to ISPs for free, allows them to “look at the FCC location IDs that have been published and map them against [the ISP’s] own network.”

The process of obtaining a Tier D license typically takes two to three days to complete, Moran added.

“However, I would advise that as states undertake their challenge processes, CostQuest is going to get a lot more requests or applications to get access to their Tier D license,” he said. “So that two to three day timeline may go from a brief two days to a week or potentially weeks.”

Thus, he urged ISPs to apply for the license “as soon as possible.”

If a provider receives the license and finds “areas listed as being eligible for BEAD overbuild,” it should consider filing a planned service challenge, in which an ISP confirms that reliable broadband will be deployed and available at a given BSL by a planned service deadline. For most states, that deadline is June 30, 2024.