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How Public Input Helped Shape NTIA’s High-Speed Internet Grant Programs Funded by the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law
On November 15, 2021, President Joe Biden signed the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law, also known as the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act, which included a historic $65 billion investment to ensure that everyone in America has access to affordable, reliable, high-speed internet. The U.S. Department of Commerce’s National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA) was allocated more than $48 billion of this funding to work with states and other stakeholders to lay the critical groundwork to connect every American.
NTIA developed a whole-of-government, whole-of-nation strategy to meet President Biden’s goal to connect everyone in America to reliable, affordable, high-speed internet service. On January 7, 2022, NTIA requested public comment on a wide range of policy and program considerations associated with the new high-speed internet grant programs authorized and funded by the President’s Bipartisan Infrastructure Law. The request for comment was a vital part of NTIA’s strategy, allowing a broad and diverse set of stakeholders to inform program development and help close the digital divide and meet the ambitious goal of connecting every American. This process bolstered NTIA’s work and improved the number and quality of ideas under consideration as the agency developed the Notices of Funding Opportunity for the new grant programs.
NTIA received 557 thoughtful and informative written responses from state and local governments, non-profit and community-based organizations, schools, internet service providers, industry associations and individuals. NTIA also conducted hundreds of stakeholder engagement events, including listening sessions, webinars, panel discussions, and in-person and virtual individual and group meetings. NTIA thanks all the individuals and organizations who shared their views and ideas throughout this process. This input has served an important role in the development and implementation of the new high-speed internet grant programs, informed the drafting of the Notices of Funding Opportunity, and helped shape these programs in ways that will help truly make it a whole-of-nation success.
What We Heard
Our overwhelming takeaway: Stakeholders believe in and are committed to doing their part to achieve an America where everyone has access to affordable, reliable, high-speed internet.
Our engagements confirmed there is significant support for the President’s goal of universal access to affordable, reliable, high-speed internet for all. Respondents pointed to the COVID-19 pandemic as crystalizing what many have known for a very long time: access to affordable, reliable, high-speed internet is not a luxury, but a necessity, for everyone in America. Access to the internet plays a critical and growing role in the ways in which we work, play, learn, receive health care, and participate in democracy.
Yet affordable, reliable, high-speed internet access has remained elusive too far too many for far too long, whether because they live in a location where no service is available, the offering available is unaffordable, or the speed or quality of the service available to them is unreliable. Respondents implored NTIA to anchor on a clear north star: a robust and affordable internet connection for everyone in America.
Like the respondents, NTIA is prepared to go all in and do its part to reach this ambitious goal. The forthcoming Notices of Funding Opportunity (NOFOs) will describe how NTIA intends to fulfill this clear directive in partnership with other federal actors; state, territorial, Tribal and Native authorities; cities, towns, counties and other localities; the non-profit sector; academia; labor organizations and unions; and industry.
Some of the additional key findings that informed decisions NTIA will make in the Notices of Funding Opportunity include:
- While the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law funding represents a historic investment in high-speed internet deployment, it is not the only funding being invested to achieve this goal, and in some cases, may not represent enough funding alone to close the digital divide in each state. Respondents recommended state plans reflect and account for all public and private investments occurring in this space, including other federal, state, and local investment, and investment by existing providers, to ensure that all assets are working together to achieve the desired outcome. States should find ways to maximize the reach by utilizing other sources of funding in conjunction with Bipartisan Infrastructure dollars whenever possible – for example; states and municipalities may use American Rescue Plan funds without penalty.
- Bipartisan Infrastructure Law-funded networks should be built to stand the test of time and be fast enough to accommodate current and future needs. Given current demand and evolving technologies, Bipartisan Infrastructure Law programs should prioritize the fastest speeds possible and require a minimum of at least 100/20 Mbps. Relatedly, Bipartisan Infrastructure Law funding should prioritize fiber-to-the-home wherever practical to future-proof the infrastructure. At the same time, respondents expressed the need for states to have flexibility to utilize both fixed and wireless technologies to fully reach all Americans and called for the ability to substitute fixed wireless and satellite options where fiber is not cost-effective or where no provider is willing to offer fiber.
- NTIA should take steps, including via the low-cost plan requirement, to promote affordability as part of its Bipartisan Infrastructure Law implementation. Respondents encouraged NTIA to look closely at the FCC’s Affordable Connectivity Program (ACP) when making decisions around the low-cost plan requirements and to require subgrantees to accept the ACP to ensure the complementary success of the programs. Respondents also suggested that states consider the end price to the consumer when deciding between competing proposals. Moreover, NTIA should make clear that affordability programs are an eligible use of both BEAD and Digital Equity funds and encourage states to specifically articulate affordability strategies in their BEAD and Digital Equity plans.
- NTIA should establish strong local coordination requirements to ensure all voices are incorporated in state plans before they are approved. Like the NTIA process, state planning processes should be done in close alignment with key stakeholders. Respondents of all types generally expressed concern that they might be left out of the planning process and asked NTIA to evaluate the sufficiency of a state’s local coordination and stakeholder engagement efforts to make sure they were involved before approving a state’s plan. Similarly, respondents suggested that states be required to have close alignment between Broadband Equity and Deployment plans and Digital Equity plans. The “E” in BEAD is “equity” and respondents wanted to ensure the plans were informed by, complementary with, and intentionally linked.
- Respondents voiced concern about the inaccuracy of existing broadband maps and indicated a clear need for more reliable and improved map accuracy. The FCC is well underway with a new approach to mapping and data collection which should result in more accurate maps. NTIA is working closely with the FCC and internet providers to ensure that the maps are as accurate as possible and are made available in a timely way. Respondents encouraged NTIA to allow state and localities to conduct their own mapping activities as well and stressed the need for an opportunity to challenge the new FCC maps before Bipartisan Infrastructure Law funding allocations are finalized.
- A highly skilled workforce is critical to meeting infrastructure buildout timelines, the safe deployment of sustainable networks, and ultimately achieving universal access to reliable, affordable, high-speed internet. Respondents acknowledged that hundreds of thousands of new jobs may be created because of an investment of this size and expressed a desire that efforts be taken to ensure that the jobs created are good-paying jobs and that there be equitable access to these job opportunities, both from underrepresented populations (e.g., women and people of color) and the residents of the communities where deployment projects will take place. Relatedly, concerns were raised about the potential lack of available workers to be hired on these projects, potentially slowing down deployment timelines. Respondents recommended NTIA and states intentionally focus on workforce development and job quality standards throughout implementation.
The release of our Notices of Funding Opportunity will be an important milestone for implementation of the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law. But it is just the beginning. NTIA knows that to be successful, we need everyone to come to the table. We welcome continued, ongoing coordination and collaboration with all stakeholders and will continue to engage with a diverse set of stakeholders to ensure all voices continue to be heard. States and territories have an important statutory role in implementation and NTIA looks forward to working in strong partnership with these entities to respond in real-time to their needs, provide robust technical assistance and support, and maintain constant communication. Localities and groups representing historically excluded communities can and must make their voices heard – and established partners must listen - to ensure that longstanding equity gaps are finally closed. Existing broadband providers and new entrants must communicate well with federal, state, and local partners to ensure that deployments proceed as expected.
NTIA urges all individual stakeholders and organizations to continue to engage throughout the implementation process – with NTIA, with state and local governments, with territorial, Native, and tribal authorities, with providers, and with civil society groups – to ensure that this historic investment creates our shared goal of affordable, reliable high-speed internet for all.