Communications and Technology

As Federal Windfall Flows to the States, Lawmakers Must Be Good Stewards of Broadband Funds

This June, the National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA) issued a long-awaited announcement that will have significant consequences on the future of U.S. telecommunications. The Broadband, Equity, Access, and Deployment (BEAD) program, which was enacted via the 2021 bipartisan infrastructure law, provides $42.45 billion to be allocated across the 50 states and U.S. territories for broadband expansion.

NTIA recently announced the exact amount of BEAD funding allocated to each state, which was calculated using revised broadband coverage maps maintained by the Federal Communications Commission. States now have 180 days upon receipt of NTIA’s formal notice of allocation to submit their Initial Proposals for spending these allocated block grants on projects to expand or upgrade broadband networks.

Unfortunately, NTIA has unnecessarily complicated the grant process by injecting unrelated Biden Administration priorities into the BEAD program’s Notice of Funding Opportunity (NOFO), disguising these “guidelines” as requirements. In a letter to NTIA Administrator Alan Davidson, U.S. Sen. John Thune and 10 Senate colleagues criticized the agency’s decision to deviate from their clear statutory mandate and the congressional intent of the bipartisan infrastructure law.

Such deviations include burdensome labor and equity provisions, an explicit preference for fiber instead of the principles of tech-neutrality outlined in the statute, rate regulation of broadband service, and favorable treatment for government-owned networks (GONs).

U.S. House Energy and Commerce Committee Chair Cathy McMorris Rodgers similarly noted in a recent statement and again at NTIA’s oversight hearing that the agency must “carry out its responsibilities according to congressional intent, which includes making those investments in a technology neutral way that avoids overbuilding and wasteful spending.”

State legislators and broadband authorities looking to maximize the impact of their BEAD allocation should turn to ALEC model policy on the subject. Our Principles on Municipal/Government-Owned Networks spell out the risks of relying on GONs to deliver broadband service, while our Six Principles for Communications and Technology model policy reiterates that governments should be technology neutral as long as a given solution can meet the technical requirements enshrined in law.

The Taxpayers Protection Alliance found that there are at least 16 federal programs and more than $413 billion in funding dedicated to broadband deployment. With such an enormous sum of taxpayer dollars on the line and the growing bureaucracy involved, there is tremendous risk for waste, fraud, and abuse in the system should the government fund duplicative, underperforming projects like GONs.

The Biden Administration should stick to the script and focus on how to best expand broadband to truly underserved communities, and not use BEAD to shoehorn in unrelated priorities.