NTIA Releases the Notice of Funding Opportunities for Three IIJA Programs Today
By Amy Huffman, policy director, Angela Siefer, executive director, and Josh Mimura, policy fellow
This is the third in a four-part series about the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act (IIJA) digital equity and broadband grant announcements from the National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA). See the overarching explainer here, continue to check back here for more information, and register for our webinar where we’ll dive into the BEAD and DEA NOFOs on Thursday, May 26, 3-4 p.m. ET.
The Broadband, Equity, Access, and Deployment Program, otherwise known as BEAD, officially launched today with the release of the grant requirements and process in its Notice of Funding Opportunity (NOFO).
In essence, the BEAD Program is a block-grant program, providing grants in lump sums to States, the District of Columbia and territories based on a formula that hinges on the number of unserved households in a given state. Those numbers are forthcoming and will be provided through a new mapping program housed at the Federal Communications Commission (FCC). States will take most of the BEAD implementation money and sub-grant it to build broadband infrastructure to households without any or inadequate broadband service. With restrictions, it can also be used for broadband adoption activities.
States, the District of Columbia, and territories otherwise known as “Eligible Entities” will receive BEAD funds in phases. They’ll first submit Letters of Intent that indicate they plan to participate in the program and identify what agency will run the program. They need to do this by July 18, 2022, after which they can request ‘Initial Planning Funds’. The remaining funds will be provided in a multi-step, multi-year process. (See NOFO, pg. 19.)
As a general note, all BEAD funded broadband projects must reach a minimum of 100 Mbps download/20 Mbps upload with a latency of less than or equal to 100 milliseconds.
The BEAD NOFO is long and dense, but we’ve sorted through it to identify how the BEAD program will intersect with the Digital Equity Act Program and how the two complement each other.
1. BEAD Five-Year Action Plans Must Contain the State’s Digital Equity Plan
NTIA states the Five-Year Action Plans should contain the State Digital Equity Plan as an “Eligible Entity cannot have a Five-Year Action Plan that does not address digital equity.”
According to the BEAD NOFO, states, the District of Columbia, and territories should provide a direct link between the planning processes by (See NOFO, pg. 10-11):
- Ensuring continuity between staff tasked with developing both plans
- Creating overlap between state DEA and BEAD planning teams
- Establishing formal and direct communication and collaboration pathways between DEA and BEAD planning teams
2. BEAD Addresses Broadband Affordability through Requirement of Low-Cost Plans and a Middle-Class Affordability Plan
Good news! Any broadband project funded through the BEAD program will need to have two things to address affordability:
- A middle-class affordability plan
- A low-cost broadband service option
Each state will create a middle class affordability plan and will define low-cost broadband service options. The NOFO does not define exactly what each of these should look like, but they do provide examples. The state must first consult with NTIA and then submit a proposed definition through the “Final Proposal”.
This means it’s likely we’ll see a variety of definitions across the states, the District of Columbia, and territories, however, not within them. We look forward to seeing innovative definitions.
Middle-Class Affordability Plans
Middle-Class affordability plans are intended to ensure that “high quality broadband services are available to all middle-class families in the BEAD-funded network’s service area at a reasonable price.” The NOFO offers the following examples:
- Requiring BEAD subgrantees to offer low-cost, high-speed plans to all middle-class households in BEAD-funded areas
- Providing consumer subsidies to lower costs for those who may not qualify for ACP or other programs
- Promoting competition through a state regulatory authority
- Allocating extra points to subgrantee applications with robust affordable plans and/or open access networks
Low-Cost Broadband Service Options
As required in the IIJA, the NOFO states that any BEAD subgrantee must offer at least one low-cost broadband service option to subscribers that qualify for ACP or satisfy any other criteria added by the Eligible Entity. On page 67, the NOFO discusses the required components of an Eligible Entity’s proposed definition of “low-cost broadband service option.” It then provides a sample definition. Below is a table indicating what components are required in a proposed definition of “low-cost broadband service option” as well as the encouraged targets for each component. Low-cost broadband service options must remain available for as long as the BEAD funded networks are in operation.
3. Affordable Connectivity Program Participation Requirement
All Eligible Entities are required to ensure that services offered over any broadband network deployed and/or upgraded with BEAD Program funds allow subscribers in the service area to utilize the ACP benefit. Effectively, Eligible Entities must require subgrantees to participate in ACP and allow subscribers to apply the ACP benefit to any plans provided by those subgrantees through BEAD-funded networks. (See NOFO, pg. 66)
4. Robust Stakeholder Engagement Is Required Throughout Entire BEAD Program
To develop and implement the Five-Year Action Plans, states must create a robust engagement process. On pages 53-54 of the NOFO, NTIA provides a list of the types of organizations and stakeholders that states, the District of Columbia, and territories should include in the planning process, including (but not limited to):
- Community-based organizations
- Community anchor institutions (CAIs)
- Public housing
- Consumer advocates and advocacy groups
- Organizations that serve and represent underrepresented communities including:
- Individuals with disabilities
- Children with disabilities
- Individuals who are 60 years of age or older
- Individuals with language barriers, including English learners and individuals with low levels of literacy
- People of color
- LGBTQI+ people
- Individuals in that Eligible Entity who are incarcerated
NTIA provides examples of outreach and participation strategies that states, the District of Columbia, and territories should leverage to provide robust stakeholder engagement opportunities. They include:
- Listening sessions or public meetings (in-person and virtual)
- Websites and email addresses where public can directly submit comments
- Printed materials–brochures, fact sheets, etc.
- Social media, email, and traditional mail services
- Local advertisements and public service announcements
- Partnering with CAIs to help promote and distribute information
5. BEAD Funds can be Used to Extend Access in Multi-Tenant Buildings
Another eligible use of BEAD funds is to extend broadband service to multi-tenant buildings lacking high speed broadband, including those in low-income, urban areas. As part of their goal of broadband deployment to all unserved and underserved locations, Eligible Entities may fund deployment of Wi-Fi infrastructure to multi-family buildings that either entirely or partially lack high-speed broadband access (100/20).
Eligible Entities must give priority to residential buildings that:
- have a substantial share of unserved households OR
- are in locations in which the percentage of individuals with a household income at or below 150 percent of the poverty line applicable to a family of the size involved is higher than the national percentage of such individuals.
(See NOFO, pg. 41)
6. NTIA interpreted Congress’ Outline of the Eligible Use of Funds As a Prioritization of Funds
According to the NOFO, BEAD Program should prioritize:
- “Deploying broadband service to unserved areas,” which is defined by the IIJA as those without any or less than 25 Mbps download/3 Mbps upload.
- Underserved areas – defined as access to broadband at 25 Mbps download/3 Mbps upload but less than 100 Mbps/20 Mbps
- Connecting Community Anchor Institutions (CAIs) that do not yet have gigabit service
- Eligible entities can then apply the remaining funds to pursue eligible access, adoption, and equity-related uses.
Eligible Entities must prioritize projects that rely entirely on fiber-optic technology to each “end-user premises.” That is, eligible entities must award subgrants to deployment projects that rely entirely on fiber over deployment projects whenever possible. If there are multiple competing Priority Broadband Project proposals for a given area, NTIA discusses how to select among them starting on page 42 of the NOFO. We were drawn to affordability being one of these priorities.
We were also pleased to see NTIA explain that if a Five Year Action Plan includes broadband adoption activities, the eligible entity need not wait to begin this work. See NOFO page 42.
“NTIA recognizes broadband deployment projects often take months or years to complete, whereas certain other eligible uses of BEAD funds can be implemented more quickly. Thus, if an Eligible Entity has a plan to deploy service to all unserved and underserved locations within its jurisdiction, it may pursue non deployment initiatives using BEAD funds before or while deployment projects are underway. For example, while an Eligible Entity is only permitted to pursue a device subsidy program using BEAD funds if it has a plan to deploy service to all unserved and underserved locations within its jurisdiction, an Eligible Entity proposing such a program is both permitted and encouraged to implement it as soon as is feasible once its Initial Proposal has been approved.”