U.S. Releases Big Broadband Funds


By: Mary Jander

In a major win for proponents of advanced Internet technologies, the U.S. National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA) on May 13 opened the gates to three key funding sources allocated for broadband development nationwide.

The Notices of Funding Opportunity (NOFO) give the official green light to U.S. states or territories to apply for over $44 billion of the $65 billion allocated to broadband expansion (the so-called Broadband Bill) under the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act of 2021 (the IIJA).

The NOFO sends a clear message that broadband access has become a right, not a privilege, and it opens funding to support both last-mile and middle-mile, open access networks for U.S telcos and Internet service providers (ISPs).

Fiber Favored

The NOFO also maintains that fiber optic infrastructure will be the priority to support broadband in the future.

"NTIA has determined that 'Priority Broadband Projects' are those that use end-to-end fiber optic architecture," one NOFO document states. "Only end-to-end fiber will 'ensure that the network built by the project can easily scale speeds over time to ... meet the evolving connectivity needs of households and businesses' and 'support the deployment of 5G, successor wireless technologies, and other advanced services.'"

The news is music to the ears of those who advocate fiber. “Today is arguably one of the biggest days in the Fiber Broadband Association’s history,” wrote Gary Bolton, CEO of the fiber optic industry association, in an email to members and supporters. “The NOFO makes the strongest possible statement in prioritizing end-to-end fiber for our nation’s critical broadband infrastructure.”

A Three-Part Release of Funds

The announcement includes three official notices about funds ready for applications from the states:

BEAD ($42.5 billion). The majority of released funds are for a program dubbed Broadband Equity, Access, and Deployment (BEAD). This is the part of the Broadband Bill that aims to provide “broadband planning, deployment, mapping, equity, and adoption activities” to end users in unserved and underserved locations, according to the NOFO. The goal is to equip all citizens with broadband capable of supporting today’s high-speed requirements for healthcare, education, and employment applications. Notably, unserved is defined as having no service at all or as having service performing at under 25 Mbit/s download, 3 Mbit/s upload. Underserved means having broadband that does not meet a standard of 100 Mbit/s download, 20 Mbit/s upload.

MMG Program ($1 billion). This is the Middle Mile Broadband Infrastructure Grant (MMG), which aims to extend the reach of networks that link the broader Internet to those last-mile nets that reach the enterprise or end user. In many ways, this is a boon to providers of wholesale, open-access networks, such as those provided by regional utilities that have built fiber infrastructure alongside their electrical or gas pipelines.

Digital Equity Planning Program ($60 million). Formally called the State Digital Equity Planning Grant Program, this offers funds for states looking to “identify the barriers to digital equity and to formulate strategies for overcoming those barriers.” States looking to get BEAD funding must be able to show approved digital equity plans, and this program outlines and offers subsidies for creating those plans.

A First Step

The NOFO are vitally significant to the future of broadband services in the U.S., but there are many hurdles. Some state governments lack the staff equipped to deal with the complexities of the applications. Others will have issues with the requirements for qualification. Big broadband incumbents could also take the states to court to block actions that conflict with their monopolies.

While the NTIA advocates the use of fiber facilities to support broadband, FBA CEO Bolton also pointed out that states can define “an ‘Extremely High Cost Per Location Threshold’ to allow less expensive technology alternatives," such as cable, to fill requirements better met with fiber.

“[T]he fight is long from over,” Bolton wrote. “The NOFO rules are in our favor, but we will need to work diligently with every State and Territory Broadband Office and State policymakers to ensure that the nation’s critical broadband infrastructure is built with future-proof fiber.”

An Industry Event

The issues around the recent NOFO will be front and center at Fiber Connect 2022, an upcoming event sponsored by the Fiber Broadband Association that is taking place June 12 – 15 in Nashville, Tennessee.

This conference will bring together network operators, government representatives, municipal utilities and their fiber subsidiaries, investors, equipment providers, and customers of all kinds to explore the progress and challenges of fiber optic infrastructure. Futuriom will be attending and presenting research at the conference. We hope to see you in Nashville!