When the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act was signed in late 2021, it included US$42.5 billion for broadband internet access as part of the Broadband Equity, Access and Deployment Program. The aim of the program is to ensure that broadband access is available throughout the country. This effort differs from previous federal broadband programs because it promised to allocate the funding to individual states and let them figure out how best to distribute it.
Almost two years later, the federal government told the states exactly how much money each would receive. Award amounts are significant: 19 states will receive over $1 billion, and the average award across the 50 states is $817 million. Texas received the largest allocation at over $3.3 billion.
The states are working with the federal government to develop plans for how they will distribute those funds. The states have until December 27, 2023, to submit their initial proposals. As of November 15, no state had completed that process.
Even after the states receive the federal funding, it is expected to take years for the states to award contracts to internet service providers to install the broadband networks and for the companies to complete the work. The states are also in a race: The first to get the funding can get money for the private sector, which can start hiring from the limited pool of technicians who can install fiber optic cables.
Plans and deadlines
An estimated 11.8 million locations – households and businesses, rural and urban – are unserved or underserved. Unserved sites are those where providers only offer internet speeds below 25Mbps downstream and 3Mbps upstream. Underserved sites are those where providers offer internet speeds below 100Mbps downstream and 20Mbps upstream.
The oversight organization, the National Telecommunications and Information Administration, must approve each state’s plans for how to get broadband service to those locations. The plans must include information regarding current broadband funding that has yet to be deployed from other federal programs, plans to deal with challenges, plans to coordinate with tribal and regional entities, how the state will address the need to recruit workers and its training to install broadband, and how it will address the issue of broadband affordability. States’ initial proposals can be viewed online.
A dashboard recently released by the federal government summarizes the progress each of the 50 states plus US territories has made in approving these plans and receiving the first piece of promised funding. Some states are longer than others.
The dashboard includes eight steps that each state or territory must complete before receiving the first 20% of its promised allocation. As of November 15, 2023, most states had completed four of the eight steps in the process. Only three states – Louisiana, Nevada and Virginia – finished with six or more degrees. Notably, Louisiana and Virginia had broadband offices for at least three years before the infrastructure legislation was passed in 2021.
With the due date for submitting plans Dec. 27 and a public comment period that must be open for 30 days, many states may be pushing the deadline. States that miss the deadline may lose the funding. States are likely to start distributing their broadband funds sometime in 2024, and it is expected to take four years to implement the plans.
The states that receive funding first have global impacts. The vast majority of funds are expected to be spent on fiber optic infrastructure, and the telecommunications industry is concerned about the availability of technicians to install it. One recent survey also found that 20% of expected employees will be in engineer or manager positions.
Internet providers that successfully apply for grants in one state can quickly hire a larger percentage of available local technicians and engineers, leaving neighboring states with an even larger workforce gap. Likewise, most broadband projects require specific types of equipment, which will be in high demand once the money starts flowing.
Other funds at state level
It is important to note that there are other ongoing broadband infrastructure programs at the state level. In particular, the American Recovery Plan Act of 2021 provided State and Local Fiscal Recovery Funds and Capital Project Funds to all states, many of which were used for broadband purposes.
Although there is no summary at the state level of these projects, as far as I know, they often involve significant sums of money. For example, Missouri recently awarded $261 million from the State and Local Fiscal Recovery Funds Program for broadband projects and another $197 million in Capital Project funds. Combined, this adds another $458 million to the $1.7 billion Missouri will receive from the broadband program. This $458 million comes with shorter turnaround times than the broadband funds because they were allocated under the American Recovery Plan Act and those funds must be spent by the end of 2026.
In addition, the broadband program included $2.7 billion for digital equity work, and states are also developing those plans. The Digital Equity Act’s programs aim to ensure that all Americans have access to the skills and technology needed to function in the digital economy. The deadline for digital equity plans varies from state to state, but the original timeline calls for awards to be made in 2024. Most of these awards are expected to go to community-based entities (libraries, non-profits, religious organizations, etc. ) to help you. people acquire digital skills.
A lot of work left to do
Once states receive their broadband funding, they will still need to establish a mechanism to solicit proposals from internet service providers, grade incoming proposals, and oversee the challenge process for rejected proposals that is likely to follow. Part of the initial 20% of the funding that states will receive will be used for these purposes. Only after the awards have been presented and challenges have been resolved will the suppliers increase their workforce, purchase the appropriate equipment and begin work.
So, while the broadband funding is a big promise for the 11.2 million locations across the country that don’t have access to a good quality broadband connection, many have a long wait.
This article is republished from The Conversation, a non-profit, independent news organization that brings you facts and analysis to help you make sense of our complex world.
Written by: Brian Whitacre, Oklahoma State University.
Brian Whitacre has received funding from the USDA Rural Utility Service, USDA Economic Research Service, US Department of Health and Human Services, Regional Rural Development Centers, Association of Public Land Grant Universities, Nebraska College of Law, Institute of Museum and Library Services, Health Research Services Administration , the National Science Foundation, the Benton Foundation, and the NTCA (Rural Broadband Association).