Trade groups write playbook for spending infrastructure money

Two broadband trade groups are wasting no time to help U.S. states figure out how they can best use the billions of dollars that the federal government is going to dispense for broadband under the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act.

The Fiber Broadband Association (FBA) and NTCA-The Rural Broadband Association plan to publish a playbook to assist state governments as they receive funds from the infrastructure act.

The $42.5 billion that is dedicated to broadband will flow through a new program called Broadband, Equity, Access and Deployment (BEAD). The program will be administered by the National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA), which has been tasked with distributing the $42.5 billion to administrators in all 50 states as well as territories and the District of Columbia. Each of these locales will receive a minimum of $100 million from the NTIA plus additional funding based on the number of unserved locations.

Currently, the top job at the NTIA has not been filled with a Senate-appointed candidate. But Alan Davidson has been going through the confirmation process and is likely to be confirmed soon.

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In the meantime, the FBA and NTCA are working on their Broadband Infrastructure Playbook to help state governments.

Asked if the trade groups might be stepping on Davidson’s toes even before he takes office, Mike Romano, senior VP of industry affairs and business development at NTCA, said the NTIA is going to define the rules. “I think this is a really complementary effort.”

Romano said there are about 25-30 states that have formal broadband offices. But the other states may run broadband programs out of other agencies. Some states may have to start from scratch.

There isn’t any nationally-coordinated broadband template that all states use.

The playbook that the trade groups are developing will provide a detailed overview of the statutory requirements of the new broadband infrastructure law and an overall program plan with sequencing and timing of activities. It will also include templates for filing state funding applications.

The trade groups are working with a company, Cartesian, that provides project management and advice for the communications sector.

The guide will be published in early 2022 in advance of the NTIA’s Notice of Funding Opportunity, which is expected by May 2022.

Fiber vs. other technology

The playbook is also likely to favor fiber broadband deployments, compared to other types of technology that could be used to close the digital divide, such as fixed wireless access (FWA).

Both the FBA and the NTCA favor fiber, and they say the infrastructure act favors it as well. “The playbook will convey the requirements of the BEAD program that are specified in the law,” said Romano. “It prioritizes scalable networks.”

He noted that the Rural Digital Opportunity Fund (RDOF) auction initially awarded a lot of money to organizations that said they would close the digital divide with FWA technology. But upon further review of their long-form applications, there has been some backpedaling on the part of the government.

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For its part, the Wireless Internet Service Providers Association (WISPA) has been making sure that its voice is heard when it comes to using infrastructure act funds for FWA deployments.

When the infrastructure bill passed, the group said, “WISPA’s members connect communities in the toughest reaches of America, and we worked hard with congressional leadership on both sides of the aisle to make sure all technologies remain available to bring high-quality, ever-evolving internet connectivity to all Americans.”