Friday, January 7, 2022
You’re reading the Benton Institute for Broadband & Society’s Weekly Digest, a recap of the biggest (or most overlooked) broadband stories of the week. The digest is delivered via e-mail each Friday.
Round-Up for the Week of January 3-7, 2022
On December 23, 2021, the Department of Commerce’s National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA) highlighted the accomplishments of its new Office of Internet Connectivity and Growth over the past year and begins what will be annual tracking of investments in federal broadband support programs and Universal Service Fund programs. In the ACCESS BROADBAND 2021 Report NTIA also makes recommendations to improve efforts to track broadband spending and outcomes.
Passed as part of the Consolidated Appropriations Act, 2021, the Advancing Critical Connectivity Expands Service, Small Business Resources, Opportunities, Access, and Data Based on Assessed Need and Demand (ACCESS BROADBAND) Act established NTIA’s Office of Internet Connectivity and Growth. The law calls for the new office to engage in outreach and assistance for state, local, and tribal entities; track spending on federal broadband support programs and Universal Service Fund programs; streamline the applications process for financial assistance or grants for such programs; and coordinate with other agencies to enhance efficiency and minimize duplication of federal broadband support.
The law also requires the Office of Internet Connectivity and Growth to submit a report to Congress each year that includes:
- A description of the work of the Office for the previous year and the number of residents of the United States that received broadband as a result of Federal broadband support programs and the Universal Service Fund Programs;
- A description of how many residents of the United States were provided broadband by which universal service mechanism or which Federal broadband support program; and
- An estimate of the economic impact of such broadband deployment efforts on local economies, including any effect on small businesses or jobs.
The December 23 release is the first annual report prepared under this mandate. The Office of Internet Connectivity and Growth engaged partners across the federal government to lay the foundation for future editions of the report, including the Office of Management and Budget, the White House’s National Economic Council, and also partners with federal broadband support programs. The 2021 report serves as a baseline of current capabilities and challenges associated with tracking available data across programs.
II. The First Year of the Office of Internet Connectivity and Growth
The work of the Office of Internet Connectivity and Growth centers on four interconnected areas:
- Fund Broadband Infrastructure and Digital Inclusion Efforts
- Leverage Data for Decision Making
- Facilitate Interagency, State, Tribal, and Private Sector Coordination
- Build Capacity of Communities
1. Fund Broadband Infrastructure and Digital Inclusion Efforts
In 2021, the Office of Internet Connectivity and Growth released notices of funding opportunities (NOFOs) for three new grant programs: the Broadband Infrastructure Program, the Tribal Broadband Connectivity Program, and the Connecting Minority Communities Pilot Program.
Through the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act, Congress created or enhanced four broadband programs that will be administered by the NTIA: Broadband Equity, Access, and Deployment (BEAD) Program, the Digital Equity Act (which includes the State Digital Equity Capacity Grant Program and the Digital Equity Competitive Grant Program), the Middle Mile Deployment Program, and enhancements to the Tribal Broadband Connectivity Program.
2. Leverage Data for Decision Making
There is no single data source that indicates definitively where broadband services and technologies are available, which speeds they provide, the cost of service, or the rate of subscriptions among individuals, households, businesses, or organizations.
Since 1994, the NTIA has been a leader in tracking the digital divide, working with the U.S. Census Bureau to measure Americans’ computer and Internet use. The Office of Internet Connectivity and Growth is compiling data from more than 50 sources including the Federal Communications Commission, the Census Bureau, Ookla, Measurement Lab, BroadbandNow, and the Pew Research Center. This work has led to:
- The Indicators of Broadband Need Map: Designed to aggregate multiple third-party data sources and provide tools to the public to understand the digital divide and the varied obstacles to broadband availability and use, the map enables users to layer various data sets to evaluate broadband access by “indicators of need,” and search by specific locations such as tribal lands and minority-serving institutions.
- NTIA Internet Use Survey: NTIA used the Census Bureau’s Current Population Survey to explore Internet policy issues, including the challenges racial and ethnic minorities, low-income Americans, seniors, and other groups face in accessing and using the Internet. The Data Central section of NTIA’s website serves as a hub for NTIA Internet Use Survey resources, including the Data Explorer visualization tool, a repository of articles with NTIA’s analyses, and a Research Center containing full datasets, documentation, and sample code to guide outside researchers.
- The National Broadband Availability Map (NBAM): Public and non-public data are aggregated to inform broadband policymaking, planning, and investment decision-making with an enhanced understanding of the scope of the digital divide. In 2021, the Office of Internet Connectivity and Growth added pricing information, updated speed-test data, and included federal investments from the FCC’s Rural Digital Opportunity Fund and the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) ReConnect Program as new layers in the map. NTIA continues to synthesize and incorporate new data in pursuit of improving the NBAM’s utility in mapping broadband availability. The map is a coordinated effort across 38 states, two territories, and five federal partners.
3. Facilitate Interagency, State, Tribal, and Private Sector Coordination
The Office of Internet Connectivity and Growth collaborates with stakeholders across federal agencies, states, tribes, and industry to work toward the collective goal of closing the digital divide. The Office:
- Promotes coordination across the federal government on broadband deployment and digital inclusion efforts to:
- promote the efficient use of federal funding, align definitions between programs to the extent allowable by statute,
- gather information about broadband federal funding options to share with external stakeholders,
- provide opportunities for federal property-managing agencies to exchange information and coordinate on ways to expedite the siting of broadband infrastructure on federal lands, and
- ensure that federal funding is efficiently allocated to provide maximum benefit to U.S. residents.
- Supports federal agencies in need of broadband expertise to best serve American communities, and
- Convenes state, local, and tribal leaders committed to closing the digital divide through the State Broadband Leaders Network, the Digital Equity Leaders Network, and Tribal Engagement and Consultations.
4. Build Capacity of Communities
The Office of Internet Connectivity and Growth’s BroadbandUSA program builds capacity across state, local, and tribal governments, industry, and nonprofits that work to close the digital divide. BroadbandUSA supports broadband planning, promotes digital inclusion efforts, and shares funding opportunities through community outreach, technical assistance, solution-neutral resources, and local and regional planning workshops.
- The office supports stakeholders to enable effective broadband planning across the nation.
- BroadbandUSA provides digital inclusion resources, tools, and support for stakeholders.
- BroadbandUSA makes broadband funding resources accessible for stakeholders across the country.
III. Tracking Federal Broadband Investments
The ACCESS BROADBAND report aims to provide the public with an aggregate view across government to address how and where funds were invested and by which program.
NTIA identified 19 large broadband programs (i.e. outlaid funding above $500k in fiscal year 2020), all from the USDA and FCC, representing the majority of federal investments for broadband activities. These programs received a total of $1.662 billion in appropriations in FY20, obligated $5.334 billion, and outlaid $4.942 billion in FY20.(1)
- With nearly $5 billion outlaid to states and territories in FY20, the FCC’s programs reported 96% of the FY20 outlaid funding for large broadband programs. The most prominent FY20 program is the high-cost program, which comprises the Connect America Fund, Rural Digital Opportunity Fund, the Alternative Connect America Cost Model (ACAM), Broadband Loop Support, Alaska Plan, and the Bringing Puerto Rico Together Fund and Connect US Virgin Island Funds. The next largest FCC program is E-Rate, which subsidizes Internet service for schools and libraries. Lifeline, which subsidizes Internet and phone service for low-income individuals, represented the third-highest FCC outlay.
- USDA’s outlaid funding in FY20 represents significant investments in the connectivity of rural communities, totaling nearly $200 million. The Telecommunications Infrastructure Program, which funds infrastructure deployment for the expansion of broadband and telephone service in rural areas, is responsible for 71% of USDA’s FY20 outlays.
Every state and territory in the United States received funds from these agencies’ programs. The top five states that received the most outlaid funding from these programs were, in order from the highest amount, California ($436 million), Texas ($420 million), Alaska ($185 million), New York ($165 million), and Oklahoma ($159 million). The five states that received the most outlaid funding per capita from these programs were Alaska ($253/resident), North Dakota ($106/resident), South Dakota ($96/resident), Montana ($60/resident), and New Mexico ($41/resident). Alaska stood apart with more than two times as much per-resident spending as North Dakota and more than 17 times the national median of $14.86 per-resident in funding.
In FY20, the USDA and FCC together outlaid $2.619 billion for digital inclusion and adoption, including subsidized Internet service, and $2.322 billion for infrastructure deployment. Between the two agencies, only one program, the FCC Rural Health Care Fund, reported outlaid funding to planning, data, or mapping, resulting in less than $1 million outlaid.
The FCC’s outlaid funding mainly went to the E-Rate and Lifeline programs, which focus on funding affordability and digital inclusion. The USDA programs, however, focused more heavily on infrastructure deployment through the Telecommunications Infrastructure Program, Rural Broadband Access Program, ReConnect Program, and Community Connect Program, which totaled 88.1% of USDA’s FY20 outlays.
While all states and territories received FY20 outlays, infrastructure deployment and digital inclusion or adoption funding were disbursed differently across states. For infrastructure deployment, the highest levels of outlaid funding went to Texas ($261 million), Alaska ($138 million), and Minnesota ($109 million). For digital inclusion, the leaders were California ($372 million), Texas ($159 million), and New York ($134 million).
NTIA also identified three small broadband programs (i.e. outlaid funding below $500k in FY20). These programs awarded a total of $3.27 million in obligated funds to entities across the country in FY20. Though the programs are relatively small when compared to the USDA and FCC, their funding represents important federal investments in tribal communities and emerging technologies that aim to close the digital divide (NSF). They primarily funded planning, data, and/or mapping efforts, and are run by:
Beyond programs focused on broadband, many programs invest in broadband as one of many eligible funding uses. Many multi-use programs noted challenges with isolating the portion of funds dedicated to broadband-related purposes from those allocated for nonbroadband purposes. Funding information here does not represent the level of funds invested solely in broadband in FY20, but rather funds which were eligible for investment on broadband.
Multi-use programs reported roughly $7.7 billion in FY20 outlaid funding, representing funding eligible for but not necessarily spent on broadband activities. To date, programs with multi-use funding have not been required to isolate and report on the portion of their funds dedicated to broadband-related purposes. Most multi-use programs provide funding for digital inclusion or adoption activities, with 29 of these programs having funding eligible for such purposes. Additionally, 15 programs – within the Appalachian Regional Commission, the Delta Regional Authority, the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), the Institute of Museum and Library Services (IMLS), and the Department of Education – provide funding eligible for broadband infrastructure deployment. Four programs – within the U.S. Economic Development Administration (within the Dept. of Commerce), HUD, and IMLS – provide funding eligible for broadband planning, data, and mapping efforts.
While most multi-use programs do not currently collect and report on broadband-specific data, the Appalachian Regional Commission provided detailed broadband infrastructure deployment funding data. The Appalachian Regional Commission’s infrastructure programs fund dedicated broadband projects within the Appalachian Region, spanning across 423 counties in 13 states. The funding went to Kentucky ($7.83 million), more than double the amount received by any other state. Pennsylvania ($3.55 million) and Ohio ($3.08 million) were the next biggest recipients, followed by North Carolina ($2.87 million), New York ($2.38 million), Tennessee ($2.72 million), Georgia ($.41 million), Virginia ($.085 million), Missouri ($.075 million), Alabama ($.061 million), and Maryland ($.05 million).
The report ends with three recommendations:
- Promote consistency across programs. To the extent practicable, consistent standards across the federal government, including for recipient and sub-recipient reporting, can support effective broadband-related data collection. This can include developing guidance for agencies’ use of standard keywords in grant/loan award descriptions and a minimum set of data elements required in performance reports from recipients of all federal funding where broadband is an eligible use. These standards should include recommended geographic parameters and harmonized definitions related to desired outcomes.
- Leverage open data initiatives. Agencies are required to collect and submit information about awards, which are published to promote transparency and accountability of taxpayer funds. Incorporating broadband-related data requirements into these efforts could reduce duplicative, time-consuming, and costly requests.
- Identify data sources and alternatives. The annual report and database will require input from multiple data sources, including program-provided data and economic data sources. NTIA will evaluate alternative strategies to gather data for this report, including using data from new FCC maps, and by exploring ways to estimate Internet use in relatively small geographic areas that often comprise project areas. NTIA will also explore the use of proxies and model-based estimates to determine the economic impact of broadband programs.
- Some programs’ FY20 obligated and outlaid funding exceeds their appropriations because that funding is comprised of funding that was appropriated in years prior to FY20. Also, other than the COVID-19 Telehealth Program, the FCC’s programs are not considered appropriated funding because they are funded by contributions from telecommunications providers based on their interstate and international telecommunications revenues.
Weekend Reads (resist tl;dr)
ICYMI from Benton
Jan 13—Precision Ag Connectivity Task Force Meeting (FCC)
Jan 18, 19, 20—The ReConnect Application Workshop (USDA)
Jan 25—State of the Net Conference 2022 (Internet Education Foundation)
Feb 3—University of Pennsylvania Carey Law School Alumni Awards (University of Pennsylvania Carey Law School)
Feb 8, 9, 10—The ReConnect Application Workshop (USDA)
Feb 8—Key Legal Issues: From Plan Implementation Through Ongoing Operation and Regulatory Compliance (International Municipal Lawyers Association)
Feb 15-17—Net Inclusion 2022 (National Digital Inclusion Alliance)