Steps the Commerce Department should take to achieve the infrastructure bill’s broadband goals

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The recently signed Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act (IIJA) makes the largest federal investment into universal broadband access in history. In doing so, Congress largely bypassed the Federal Communications Commission (FCC)—the federal agency historically charged with assuring universal access to broadband—and instead gave that responsibility to the states, with the Commerce Department’s National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA) providing oversight.

This piece lays out eight steps NTIA should take to improve the odds of success in achieving Congress’ goal of universal connectivity.

Protect against risky deployment decisions while advocating for states with other federal agencies

While Congress gave NTIA the biggest financial grant in addressing the network access digital divide on record, the real decisionmakers in the congressional framework are the states, not NTIA. It is up to each state to develop their specific plan for how to end that divide and decide which entities will win the grants to do so. NTIA’s function is to oversee the plans from 58 states and territories related to broadband deployments.

Government programs often need two sets of actors to succeed. One gets to be the “hero”—the one who articulates a vision and brings stakeholders together to develop a path for solving a challenging community concern. The other must play the “accountant”—one who makes sure the math works, corners are not cut, and communities obtain the desired result. Here, Congress assigned NTIA the role of accountant. It should organize for the role, focusing on how to help states avoid downside risks while maximizing the upside opportunity.

At the same time, NTIA will be the only federal agency in a position to interact and advocate for states with other federal agencies, such as the Transportation and Energy departments, whose own plans may affect how states deploy broadband. NTIA should make sure the needs of state broadband efforts are reflected in broader federal discussions.

Enable and encourage state-to-state education to quickly scale up operations

Every state has a transportation department experienced in deploying federal dollars to build and maintain roads. But no state has a department with that experience in broadband, as the federal government has never allocated this magnitude of funding for broadband deployment.

Currently, most states have relatively small broadband offices or councils—many of which will have to quickly upgrade their capacity to meet the scale of the new challenge. NTIA can help each state shorten its learning curve by providing resources to build a common information platform and develop the skills state practitioners need for successful planning and grantmaking.

Borrow and hire personnel from other agencies with expertise in broadband grants

NTIA is now charged with overseeing grantmaking for tens of billions of dollars in broadband deployments. The closest analogy in telecommunications governance work is what the FCC has done in terms of allocating funds to rural communications enterprises through the universal service mechanisms it has overseen. The FCC has staff familiar with funding enforceable commitments to build communications networks, as does the Department of Agriculture, the Department of Housing and Urban Development, and others who have done similar—although much smaller—programs around broadband deployments.

With that in mind, NTIA should request that the FCC and the other federal agencies detail staff with expertise in broadband grants to the NTIA for its review of the state competitive grant plans.

Encourage processes that result in lower cost structures for communications networks

While Congress did not require it to do so, NTIA should encourage states and other federal agencies to engage in the kind of practices that result in lower cost structures for network deployment. One example would be “dig once” practices that, as the Obama-era Broadband Opportunity Council recognized, “help Local and State governments lower their own costs and costs for telecommunication companies by coordinating infrastructure projects.”

Another tactic would be for NTIA to encourage states to require federal grant recipients provide notice of any trenching and invite other internet service providers and public agencies to install conduit at the same time, similar to what California has already legislated.

The “dig once” notion should not be limited to communications projects. As the National Broadband Plan illustrated in detail a decade ago, “Substantial savings can be captured if fiber builds are coordinated with other infrastructure projects in which the right-of-way (e.g., road, water, sewer, gas, electric, etc.) is already being dug.” There are many other IIJA projects, such as trenching for water and sewer networks or grid improvements, that should be similarly coordinated to lower the cost structure for all.

Determine whether there are baseline requirements beyond those delineated by Congress

Congress explicitly required that any broadband network receiving funds meet a minimum threshold of providing speeds of no less than 100 megabits per second (Mbps) download and 20 Mbps upload. NTIA should consider whether there are other, more technical, minimum standards related to issues such as latency, security, privacy, and others. It is likely that all the networks that meet the 100/20 Mbps standard will meet NTIA’s standards as well. Still, it is far better to build in those requirements upfront than retrofit networks later to meet minimum standards.

Another kind of requirement would be those designed to assist with the overall process. For example, NTIA could encourage states to adopt a requirement that grant applicants participate in broadband mapping efforts, and that failure to submit data or submitting false data can result in disqualification from grants.

Provide states with expertise on maximizing competitive dynamics in the grant process

A major reason for the country’s network divide is private broadband providers have not connected many hard-to-reach places due to cost constraints. As the new federal capital program looks to connect those places, it’s essential the federal governments use competitive forces to avoid overpaying for the new assets.

For that reason, the 2010 National Broadband Plan proposed “reverse auctions,” in which carriers competed to determine which entity was willing to provide the service at the lowest level of subsidy. Reverse auctions accomplished the goal of driving networks’ prices down. Unfortunately, in the execution of the most recent reverse auction, the FCC relied on bad maps and arguably made significant misjudgments in evaluating potential bidders, resulting in problems that convinced Congress that states should be in charge of distributing new funds. Further, some believed that the auction process was insufficiently responsive to specific state and local needs and concerns.

Under the IIJA, states need to develop their own mechanisms for assuring a competitive process drives the subsidy required for each project and avoids political favoritism or other problematic criteria. NTIA, which has considerable expertise in competitive grants, should work with the states to develop best practices that all can emulate.

Assist with enforcement mechanisms to ensure grant recipients keep their promises

NTIA has significant experience with the challenge of enforcing grant recipients to follow through, as it was the lead implementor of the Broadband Technology Opportunities Program—a major broadband programming suite under the 2009 American Recovery and Reinvestment Act. Based on that and more recent lessons, NTIA should develop best practices that states can follow.

Further, a number of states have already adopted stricter enforcement measures than the FCC, which NTIA can reference when advising all states. These include shorter build-out schedules, tougher penalties and forfeitures for failure to perform, quarterly status reports, and agreements to be subject to various audits, among other techniques

Improve coordination of federal and state broadband programs

According to NTIA’s website, there are 13 federal agencies that support broadband deployment efforts, most of which have multiple programs. As states develop their own plans, it would be useful to improve federal coordination efforts.

NTIA did recently improve their website by providing a search engine that enables stakeholders to find the program that serves their needs. It would also be helpful to require other agencies to update their information periodically. In addition, as called for by the December 2020 Consolidated Appropriations Act’s broadband provisions, NTIA should create a common application so that applicants can fill out one form to apply for multiple programs simultaneously. NTIA should also enable states to add their broadband-related programs to the database so potential providers can assess the full menu of available support.

In conclusion, our country has been discussing the need to bridge the broadband access divide for over two decades. Now, thanks to the IIJA, there are funds sufficient to achieve the goal. While the states have the principal roles for developing plans and awarding money, NTIA will be vital in assisting the states to seize this opportunity, and the steps outlined in this piece can help it do so.