Initial Reflections on NTIA’s Notice of Funding Opportunity (NOFO) for the Broadband Equity, Access and Deployment Program

On May 24, 2022, I was pleased to join a panel discussion at the Mountain Connect Conference on the topic of “Navigating State and Federal Funding Programs.” In response to three questions, I emphasized the following points: 1) the BEAD program is at least 13 times larger than the BTOP program, 2) the BEAD program is designed to place a lot of responsibility on broadband providers and local governments and 3) communities are wise to develop a strategic plan that will help guide their engagement with the BEAD program.

In the post below, I summarize the remarks I prepared for Mountain Connect.

How does the BEAD NOFO differ from the BTOP program and what are the lessons learned from BTOP that can be applied to BEAD for applicants?

To me, any comparison between BEAD and BTOP should begin with an acknowledgment that the BEAD program is at least 13 times larger than was BTOP. BTOP was a significant undertaking, but BEAD is a game-changer.

According NTIA’s figures, BTOP expended approximately $3.1B of federal funds on broadband infrastructure projects. The federal funding and matching funds contributed by grantees supported projects that deployed more than 115,000 new and upgraded network miles and directly connected or improved existing connections to more than 23,000 Community Anchor Institutions. According to an evaluation by ASR Analytics, BTOP infrastructure projects were expected to deliver either $5.7 billion in increased output annually or $21 billion annually — depending on the economic model employed.

I reference these metrics to illustrate what a Federal funding program 13 times the size of BTOP will mean. While BEAD has different objectives than did BTOP and will collect different key metrics, we can conclude that — due to the number of projects funded, the number of Federal dollars invested in those projects — the impact of BEAD should far eclipse the impact of BTOP. For local governments and their project partners, the release of the BEAD NOFO should represent an unprecedented opportunity to provide broadband service to community residents who are currently unserved.

With respect to lessons learned from BTOP that might be applied by BEAD applicants, a pro tip from a BTOP insider, I would offer this: it did not feel like a mean task to select and fund $3.1B worth of broadband infrastructure projects in 2009. My expectation is that it will not be a mean task to select and fund $41.6B some 14–15 years later. Proposals that reflect an understanding and appreciation of the programmatic goals, expectations, requirements, and limitations outlined in the NOFO will help facilitate the task of selecting the most worthwhile projects and improve the likelihood that the proposal is chosen for funding.

What are some best practices surrounding the role of partnerships in grant funded projects? What should applicants be doing both on the provider and the municipality side of things?

Many members of the team at NTIA have years of experience providing technical assistance to government leaders and their key stakeholders regarding the development and implementation of effective public private partnerships. So, it not a surprise to see collaborative efforts, stakeholder engagement and other tools and techniques supporting the development of effective partnership baked-into the requirements of the NOFO.

For example, the Five-Year Action Plan will establish — right from the first stage of planning — an Eligible Entity’s broadband goals and priorities. The NOFO is explicit that an Eligible Entity — most likely a department of a state or territorial government — must document how its goals and priorities have been informed by collaboration and consultation with a broad array of key stakeholder and project partners.

Given the responsibilities place on local government and broadband providers related to consultation and to the development of meaningful projects, I see a couple of clear recommendations for local governments and their potential project partners.

· For local governments, both the size and the structure of the BEAD NOFO suggests that Local Governments should be prepared to hire new staff and/or share resources with one another. I’ve tried to imagine how local governments will best meet the requirements of the NOFO and support the development of the most worthwhile projects for their communities and I do not see how the people responsible can be less than full-time dedicated positions.

· For potential project partners to local governments, I would recommend two key next steps. 1) Broadband providers and other project partners should steel themselves (and their leadership) to be patient — the process outlined in the NOFO suggests to me many months until Federal funds from the BEAD program will be made available to project partners. 2) Broadband providers and other project partners should be proactive and engaged at every stage of the process outlined in the BEAD NOFO. Starting now and continuing into 2023, there are important opportunities to contribute to the various stages of the BEAD program.

What should communities be doing now to make sure their local needs are met through these grant programs?

Since leaving NTIA, I have worked with local governments and their project partners on projects designed to leverage advanced technologies to address stubborn challenges and make communities more livable, accessible, safe and equitable. These projects — referred to as “smart city” or “smart and connected community” projects — leverage broadband internet connectivity to advance goals including Vision Zero, the reduction of carbon emissions and others.

To identify the goals and objectives that will guide a communities’ smart community efforts, local government leaders often initiate process that includes establishing steering committees and developing iterative strategic plans before finalizing a plan that reflects input received from members of the community and other key stakeholders. I recommend that communities initiate a similar process. Utilizing such a process, local communities can develop strategic goals that will guide their efforts to pursue BEAD funding. By my read of the NOFO, applicants will likely be required to submit with their BEAD project proposals evidence of consultation and stakeholder engagement, so establishing a steering committee would enable communities to get ahead of this likely requirement. Beyond the likely application requirement, establishing a BEAD steering committee also strikes me as one of the best avenues to ensuring that the projects a community submits or supports for BEAD funding are tailored to meet their local needs.

About this Medium Site

On this Medium site, I explore an array of topics related to the transformative power of smart and connected communities. A central question for this observer of the so-called smart community movement: how will municipalities, real estate developers, universities and other leading organizations develop, deploy and support smart and connected community projects at scale?

I welcome feedback and comments from readers.

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Bill Maguire

A recovering policy wonk, Bill is passionate about the transformative power of advanced networks, open data, machine learning & the Internet of Things (IoT).