NTIA Wants to Hear from You About the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act

Monday, January 10, 2022

Digital Beat

NTIA Wants to Hear from You About the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act

Kevin Taglang
Taglang

The U.S. Department of Commerce’s National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA) is responsible for distributing more than $48 billion in broadband funding through several different programs under the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act. On Friday, January 7 NTIA requested input from the public on how best to implement the provisions of the new law that represent the country’s largest investments ever in broadband infrastructure and adoption. NTIA welcomes input on any matter that you believe is important to its implementation efforts, especially if you have applied to or had experience with other federal or state broadband funding programs and can offer suggestions for how to effectively implement these new funding programs, based on your experiences. NTIA is looking for specific actionable proposals, rationales and relevant factual information.

NTIA’s Role in Implementing the Broadband Provisions of the 2021 Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act

NTIA will establish six broadband programs as directed by the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act. The largest of these new NTIA programs is the Broadband Equity, Access, and Deployment (BEAD) Program. The BEAD Program provides $42.45 billion, to be distributed among states, territories, D.C., and Puerto Rico, for projects that support broadband infrastructure deployment and adoption. Eligible entities will receive initial funds to support broadband planning and related capacity efforts, from mapping, staffing state/territory broadband offices, to outreach and coordination with local communities.  After a preliminary planning phase and once the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) releases location-based mapping of broadband availability, the remaining funding will be allocated based on a formula that considers the number of unserved and high-cost locations in the state. States and territories will then propose projects that meet the statutory priorities, the first priority being funding to provide broadband to unserved areas (those below 25/3 Mbps), followed by underserved areas (those below 100/20 Mbps), and then serving community anchor institutions (1/1 Gbps). 

Also, NTIA will create the Enabling Middle Mile Broadband Infrastructure Program. The purpose of this $1 billion grant program is to expand and extend middle-mile infrastructure to reduce the cost of connecting unserved and underserved areas to the internet backbone. 

Congress provided an additional $2 billion to the existing Tribal Broadband Connectivity Program, an NTIA program previously implemented under the Consolidated Appropriations Act, 2021. The program directs funding to tribal governments to be used for broadband deployment on tribal lands, as well as for telehealth, distance learning, broadband affordability, and digital inclusion. 

The Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act isn’t only about infrastructure. Congress allocated $2.75 billion for Digital Equity Act Programs to promote digital inclusion and equity to ensure that all individuals and communities have the opportunity to acquire the same skills, technology, and capacity needed to engage in the Nation’s digital economy. These programs include the:

  • State Digital Equity Planning Grant Program, a $60 million formula grant program for states and territories to develop digital equity plans;
  • State Digital Equity Capacity Grant Program, a $1.44 billion formula grant program for states and territories to implement digital equity projects and support the implementation of digital equity plans; and
  • Digital Equity Competitive Grant Program, a $1.25 billion discretionary grant program for specific types of political subdivisions to implement digital equity projects.

Questions, Questions, Questions

With all that Congress has tasked NTIA with, the agency seeks input on the following questions as it crafts Notices of Funding Opportunity (NOFOs) for each of the broadband grant programs. 

A. General Questions

a) Bringing Reliable, Affordable, High-Speed Broadband to All Americans

1. What are the most important steps NTIA can take to ensure that the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act’s broadband programs meet their goals with respect to access, adoption, affordability, digital equity, and digital inclusion?

2. Obtaining stakeholder input is critical to the success of this effort. How best can NTIA ensure that all voices and perspectives are heard and brought to bear on questions relating to the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act’s broadband programs? 

3. Transparency and public accountability are critical to the success of the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act’s broadband programs. What types of data should NTIA require funding recipients to collect and maintain to facilitate assessment of the programs’ impact, evaluate targets, promote accountability, and/or coordinate with other federal and state programs? Are there existing data collection processes or templates that could be used as a model? How should this information be reported and analyzed, and what standards, if any, should NTIA, grant recipients, and/or sub-grantees apply in determining whether funds are being used lawfully and effectively?

4. NTIA has an interest in ensuring that the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act is implemented in a way that promotes the efficient use of federal funds. How should NTIA and grant recipients verify that funding is used in a way that complements other federal and state broadband programs?

b) Supporting States, Territories, and Sub-Grantees to Achieve the Goal

5. In implementing the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act’s programs, NTIA will offer technical assistance to states, localities, prospective sub-grantees, and other interested parties. What kinds of technical assistance would be most valuable? How might technical assistance evolve over the duration of the grant program implementation?

6. The Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act requires states and territories to competitively select subgrantees to deploy broadband, carry out digital equity programs, and accomplish other tasks. How should NTIA assess a particular state or territory’s subgrant award process? What criteria, if any, should NTIA apply to evaluate such processes? What process steps, if any, should NTIA require (e.g., Request for Proposal)? Are there specific types of competitive subgrant processes that should be presumed eligible (e.g., publicly released requests for proposals and reverse auctions)?

7. NTIA views the participation of a variety of provider types as important to achieving the overall goals of the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act broadband programs. How can NTIA ensure that all potential subrecipients, including small and medium providers, cooperatives, non-profits, municipalities, electric utilities, and larger for-profit companies alike have meaningful and robust opportunities to partner and compete for funding under the programs?

8. States and regions across the country face a variety of barriers to achieving the goal of universal, affordable, reliable, high-speed broadband and broadband needs, which vary from place to place. These challenges range from economic and financial circumstances to unique geographic conditions, topologies, or other challenges that will impact the likelihood of success of this program. In implementing the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act’s broadband programs, how can NTIA best address such circumstances?

9. Several Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act broadband programs provide that, absent a waiver, a grant or subgrant recipient must contribute its own funding, or funding obtained from a non-federal source, to “match” funding provided by the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act program. Under what circumstances, if any, should NTIA agree to waive these matching fund requirements, and what criteria should it assess (in accordance with any criteria established by the statute) when considering waiver requests?

c. Ensuring the Future of America is Made in America by All of America’s Workers

10. The COVID-19 pandemic has disrupted global supply chains and impacted employment patterns. What is the likely impact of current workforce and supply chain constraints on the speed with which states, service providers, and others achieve the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act’s network deployment objectives? Are the areas unserved or underserved by broadband networks, which will see substantial new deployments under the law’s broadband provisions, likely to face particularly significant workforce or supply-chain constraints? What steps, if any, should NTIA take to mitigate the impact of workforce or supply-chain limitations?

11. One objective of the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act is to ensure American workers have access to high-quality jobs, especially those who were impacted the most by the pandemic, including women and people of color. What federal policy tools can NTIA apply to help ensure that broadband funding is deployed in a way that maximizes the creation of good-paying jobs and that women and people of color have full opportunity to secure those jobs.

12. What steps, if any, should NTIA take to ensure maximum use of American-made network components and that supply shortages are addressed in ways that create high-quality jobs for all Americans? What impact, if any, will application of the “Buy American” requirements in the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act have on supply-chain and workforce challenges and on the speed with which the nation can reach the goal of 100% broadband connectivity?

B. Broadband Equity, Access and Deployment (BEAD) Program Questions

a. Ensuring Publicly Funded Broadband Networks that Sustain and Scale

13. NTIA is committed to ensuring that networks built using taxpayer funds are capable of meeting Americans’ evolving digital needs, including broadband speeds and other essential network features. What guidance or requirements, if any, should NTIA consider with respect to network reliability and availability, cybersecurity, resiliency, latency, or other service quality features and metrics? What criteria should NTIA establish to assess grant recipients’ plans to ensure that service providers maintain and/or exceed thresholds for reliability, quality of service, sustainability, upgradability and other required service characteristics?

14. NTIA is committed to ensuring that networks constructed using taxpayer funds are designed to provide robust and sustainable service at affordable prices over the long term. What criteria should NTIA require states to consider to ensure that projects will provide sustainable service, will best serve unserved and underserved communities, will provide accessible and affordable broadband in historically disconnected communities, and will benefit from ongoing investment from the network provider over time?

15. In its effort to ensure that BEAD-funded networks can scale to meet Americans’ evolving needs, and to ensure the public achieves the greatest benefit from the federal investment, NTIA seeks to understand reasonably foreseeable use cases for America’s broadband infrastructure over the next five, ten, and twenty years. What sort of speeds, throughput, latencies, or other metrics will be required to fully connect all Americans to meaningful use over the next five, ten, and twenty years? How can the BEAD program meet our nation’s broadband network connectivity needs in the future and what other benefits can Americans expect from this program and the networks it will help fund in other industries and across the economy? How can existing infrastructure be leveraged to facilitate and amplify these benefits? What are the best sources of evidence for these questions and for predicted future uses of broadband?

b. Allocation and Use of BEAD Funds to Achieve Universal, Reliable, Affordable, High-Speed Broadband

16. Broadband deployment projects can take months or years to complete. As a result, there are numerous areas where an entity has made commitments to deploy service—using its own funding, government funding, or a combination of the two—but in which service has not yet been deployed. How should NTIA treat prior buildout commitments that are not reflected in the updated  FCC maps because the projects themselves are not yet complete? What risks should be mitigated in considering these areas as “served” in the goal to connect all Americans to reliable, affordable, high-speed broadband?

17. Ten percent of total BEAD funding is reserved for distribution based on how many unserved locations within a state or territory are also locations in which the cost to deploy service is higher than the nationwide average. The Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act provides that, in calculating the cost of deployment, NTIA should consider factors such as the area’s remoteness, population density, topography, poverty rate, or “any other factor identified by the [NTIA], in consultation with the [FCC], that contributes to the higher cost of deploying broadband service in the area.” [§ 60102(a)(2)(G), if you’re scoring at home.] What additional factors, if any, should NTIA consider in determining what constitutes a “high-cost area”?

18. The Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act provides that BEAD funding can be used in a variety of specific ways, including the provision of service to unserved and underserved areas, connection of community anchor institutions, data collection, installation of service within multi-family residential buildings, and broadband adoption programs. The law also permits the NTIA to designate other eligible uses that facilitate the program’s goals. What additional uses, if any, should NTIA deem eligible for BEAD funding?

c. Establishing Strong Partnerships Between State, Local, and Tribal Governments

19. Community engagement is critical to eliminating barriers to broadband access and adoption. NTIA views strong involvement between states and local communities as key to ensuring that the broadband needs of all unserved and underserved locations are accounted for in state plans submitted for funding. What requirements should NTIA establish for states/territories to ensure that local perspectives are critical factors in the design of state plans?

20. When formulating state broadband plans, what state agencies or stakeholder groups should be considered in the development of those plans?

21. How can NTIA ensure that states/territories consult with Tribal governments about how best to meet Tribal members’ needs when providing funding for broadband service to unserved and underserved locations on Tribal lands within state boundaries?

d. Low-Cost Broadband Service Option and Other Ways to Address Affordability

22. The Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act requires that BEAD funding recipients offer at least one low-cost broadband option and directs NTIA to determine which subscribers are eligible for that low-cost option. [§ 60102(h)(5)(A).] How should NTIA define the term “eligible subscriber?” In other words, what factors should qualify an individual or household for a low-cost broadband option?

23. Under the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act, states and territories are charged with developing low-cost broadband service options in consultation with NTIA and broadband providers interested in receiving funding within the state. [§ 60102(h)(5)(B).] What factors should NTIA consider in guiding the states in the design of these programs to achieve this goal? Should NTIA define a baseline standard for the “low-cost broadband service option” to encourage states/territories to adopt similar or identical definitions and to reduce the administrative costs associated with requiring providers to offer disparate plans in each state and territory? What are the benefits and risks, if any, of such an approach?

24. Affordability is a key objective of the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act’s broadband programs. What factors should be considered in the deployment of BEAD funds to help drive affordability beyond the low-cost option?

C. Implementation of the Digital Equity Act of 2021

a. State Digital Equity Plans

25. The Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act includes historic investments in digital inclusion and digital equity, promising to bring all Americans the benefits of connectivity irrespective of age, income, race or ethnicity, sex, gender, disability status, veteran status, or any other characteristic. NTIA seeks to ensure that states use Digital Equity Planning Grants to their best effect. What are the best practices NTIA should require of states in building Digital Equity Plans? What are the most effective digital equity and adoption interventions states should include in their digital equity plans and what evidence of outcomes exists for those solutions?

26. Some states and territories will benefit from technical assistance in preparing Digital Equity Plans. What types of technical assistance, support, data, or programmatic requirements should NTIA provide to states and territories to produce State Digital Equity Plans that fully address gaps in broadband adoption, promote digital skills, advance equitable access to education, healthcare and government services, and build information technology capacity to enable full participation in the economy for covered populations? What steps, if any, should NTIA take to monitor and assess these practices?

27. Equity is also a named goal of the BEAD program. How should NTIA ensure that State Digital Equity Plans and the plans created by states and territories for the BEAD program are complementary, sequenced and integrated appropriately to address the goal of universal broadband access and adoption?

28. How should NTIA ensure that State Digital Equity Plans impact and interact with the State’s goals, plans and outcomes related to: (i) economic and workforce development; (ii) education; (iii) health; (iv) civic and social engagement; (v) climate and critical infrastructure resiliency; and (vi) delivery of other essential services, especially with respect to covered populations mentioned in Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act § 60303(2)(C)?

29. The Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act directs states and territories to include in their digital equity plans “measurable objectives for documenting and promoting: (i) the availability of, and affordability of access to, fixed and wireless broadband technology; (ii) the online accessibility and inclusivity of public resources and services; (iii) digital literacy; (iv) awareness of, and the use of, measures to secure the online privacy of, and cybersecurity with respect to, an individual; and (v) the availability and affordability of consumer devices and technical support for those devices.” What best practices, if any, should states follow in developing such objectives? What steps, if any, should NTIA take to promote or require adoption of these best practices? What additional guidance and oversight about the content of the State Digital Equity Plans should NTIA provide?

b. Digital Equity Coordination Requirements

30. The Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act requires state and territories to consult with historically marginalized and disadvantaged groups, including individuals who live in low-income households, aging individuals, incarcerated individuals (other than individuals who are incarcerated in a Federal correctional facility), veterans, individuals with disabilities, individuals with a language barrier (including individuals who are English learners and have low levels of literacy), individuals who are members of a racial or ethnic minority group, and individuals who primarily reside in a rural area. What steps should NTIA take to ensure that states consult with these groups as well as any other potential beneficiaries of digital inclusion and digital equity programs, when planning, developing, and implementing their State Digital Equity Plans? What steps, if any, should NTIA take to monitor and assess these practices?

31. The Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act also requires states and territories to coordinate with local governments and other political subdivisions in developing State Digital Equity Plans. What steps should states take to fulfill this mandate? How should NTIA assess whether a state has engaged in adequate coordination with its political subdivisions?

c. Implementation of Middle Mile Broadband Infrastructure Grant Program

32. Middle-mile infrastructure is essential to American connectivity. Lack of affordable middle-mile access can have a substantial impact on the retail prices charged for broadband services. How should the NTIA ensure that middle-mile investments are appropriately targeted to areas where middle-mile service is non-existent or relatively expensive? To what extent should middle-mile grants be targeted to areas in which middle-mile facilities exist but cannot economically be utilized by providers that do not own them? Should NTIA target middle-mile funds to areas where interconnection and backhaul costs are impacted by a lack of competition or other high-cost factors?

33. The Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act’s provisions regarding the Middle Mile Broadband Infrastructure Grant Program set out a range of considerations governing NTIA’s assessment of proposals seeking middle-mile funding, including improving affordability, redundancy and resiliency in existing markets, leveraging existing rights-of-way, assets, infrastructure, and facilitating the development of carrier-neutral interconnection points. [See § 60401(e), (b)(2), (d)(2).] How should NTIA implement these requirements, and the others listed in the legislation, in prioritizing middle-mile grant applications?

34. What requirements, if any, should NTIA impose on federally funded middle-mile projects with respect to the placement of splice points and access to those splice points? Should NTIA impose other requirements regarding the location or locations at which a middle-mile grantee must allow interconnection by other providers?

35. How can the Middle Mile Broadband Infrastructure program leverage existing middle-mile facilities, access to rights of way, poles, conduit, and other infrastructure and capabilities that are owned, operated, or maintained by traditional and non-traditional providers (public and investor-owned utilities, grid operators, co-ops, academic institutions, cloud service providers, and others) to accelerate the deployment of affordable, accessible, high-speed broadband service to all Americans? What technical assistance or guidance should NTIA provide to encourage applications for this program? Are there examples of successful deployments and/or benefits provided by non-traditional providers to highlight?

36. As network demand grows, capacity needs in the middle mile and network core grow as well. What scalability requirements, if any, should NTIA place on middle-mile grant recipients?

Process, Process, Process

For anyone seeking input on these programs, NTIA has requested input by the close of business on February 4, 2022. Comments can be filed through the Federal e-Rulemaking Portal at http://www.regulations.gov and should be identified as pertaining to v docket number NTIA-2021-0002. Responders should include a page number on each page of their submissions. (All comments submitted will be posted publicly on regulations.gov.)

In addition to inviting written submissions, NTIA is hosting a series of public virtual listening sessions. More information about the listening sessions can be found at https://www.ntia.doc.gov/federal-register-notice/2021/broadband-grant-programs-public-virtuallistening-sessions.

This article is meant to summarize the NTIA’s official Request for Comments. Please direct questions to [email protected], indicating “Notice and Request for Comment” in the subject line, or if by mail, addressed to National Telecommunications and Information Administration, U.S. Department of Commerce, 1401 Constitution Avenue, NW, Washington, DC 20230; telephone: (202) 482-2048. 

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