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Tips for State Broadband Offices Prepping for BEAD Funding

On Aug. 15, states must submit initial planning funds applications to the NTIA to receive federal broadband funding. One industry expert and three state broadband directors share what to expect.

An Ethernet port pointing towards a bundle of fiber-optic cable as if to connect.
The federal government is in the midst of distributing an unprecedented amount of broadband funding to states, and one key deadline to apply for some of those funds is coming up on Aug. 15. Ahead of that deadline, Government Technology recently spoke with stakeholders and experts to glean some key advice.

But first, some background. Last year, the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act (IIJA) created the Broadband Equity, Access, and Deployment (BEAD) Program, which is poised to grant states a historic amount of funding totaling $42.45 billion in order to expand high-speed Internet access. To get the money, however, eligible states and territories in the U.S. must submit initial planning funds applications ahead of the aforementioned Aug. 15 deadline to the National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA). At stake for each applicant is $5 million in initial planning funds.

Gary Bolton is the president and CEO of the Fiber Broadband Association, and he has some advice for states on the application process.

“Things we are really advocating for are collaboration with community stakeholders and service providers,” Bolton said. Also, “it’s important that all state agencies have a good communication plan.”

Broadband work can be granular, in that what applies to one community may not apply to another, which is why states would do well to work closely with groups and agencies at the local level. Bolton said the different groups need to come together to coordinate a five-year action plan, as well as an accompanying digital equity plan. The five-year action plan would be due to the NTIA within 270 days after receiving planning funds, and it must cover broadband goals and priorities, along with a comprehensive needs assessment.

A digital equity plan, meanwhile, has more to do with implementation strategies. All the broadband infrastructure in the world doesn’t matter if a community is not deliberate about how it gets its residents connected. It includes how states plan to use funding streams to remedy inequities and inclusion barriers.

The two go hand in hand, Bolton said, because it provides a foundation for future broadband expansion that is affordable and accessible to all.

“You got to make sure that this can be affordable to everybody,” Bolton told Government Technology. “This could involve things like a low-cost plan like the Affordable Connectivity Program, which provides a subsidy so everybody can get Internet for nearly free if they’re low income, and then also, it’s making sure that people know about these opportunities.”

For more detailed recommendations, the Fiber Broadband Association recommends its Broadband Infrastructure Playbook detailing the application process, sample state objectives and other BEAD-related information.

Officials with state broadband offices also shared some of their perspectives on applying for the planning funds, as well as the work that will happen after they receive them.

Joshua Hildebrandt, Georgia’s broadband initiatives director, said, “we’ve been told by the NTIA that they’re going to want to see cost modeling, and they’re going to want to see additional data, like mapping.”

Hildebrandt added, “we can’t just go out there and say, ‘Hey, in Georgia, we know that we still have 220,000 unserved locations that do not have a funding commitment associated with them, so we’re going to just simply go to all of them, and use the BEAD allocation to reach it.’ That’s too broad. We’re going to need to be more specific than that.”

This will be easy for Georgia, where the state already has a broadband availability map in place.

The plan moving forward is “not taking our foot off the gas at all,” Hildebrandt added. Instead, it’s more about focusing on the state’s digital equity plan — just as Bolton advised — as well as additional grant opportunities and upcoming deadlines.

As for Texas, officials with the Texas Comptroller of Public Accounts — which houses that state’s broadband office — said that all Texans who are currently unserved or underserved will be addressed first in their efforts, and that the state will start looking at the specifics once they receive the initial planning funds.

Lastly, Brandy Reitter, executive director of the Colorado Broadband Office, said via email that her state’s priority for the federal funds is to help improve infrastructure in areas where residents have poor Internet, or no Internet at all. Colorado is also focused on improving broadband in ways that will support its first responders, health-care facilities, school districts and other vital resources, Reitter noted. Affordability is also a key piece for that state.

“Building broadband infrastructure is only a piece of the puzzle to improve broadband across the state,” Reitter said. “People may have it available in their area, but if they cannot afford Internet service or a device to access the service, we still have barriers.”
Katya Diaz is a staff writer for Government Technology. She has a bachelor’s degree in journalism and a master’s degree in global strategic communications from Florida International University.