February 11, 2022

ACA Connects Submits Comments to NTIA on BEAD Program Implementation

ACA Connects Submits Comments to NTIA on BEAD Program Implementation

Author: Matt Polka, ACA Connects President and CEO

Last Friday, ACA Connects submitted comments on behalf of its Members to the National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA) regarding its implementation of the $42.5 billion Broadband Equity, Access, and Deployment (BEAD) Program. The BEAD program represents a historic investment in broadband connectivity, and thus a critical opportunity to close the digital divide by bringing robust and reliable broadband service to all Americans.  But, while Congress has given NTIA and states the resources to meet this goal, success is far from assured.  NTIA, as the lead agency, will need to apply the lessons learned from prior broadband grant programs and establish guidelines to execute Congress’ mandate and then ensure states comply.  ACA Connects’ comments focused on supporting NTIA in achieving this outcome.

ACA Connects Members have participated in many federal and state broadband deployment programs in the past — like FCC’s Rate of Return and the Rural Digital Opportunity Fund (RDOF), the RUS’s ReConnect Program, as well as many state programs.  As such, they have seen what program designs work well to ensure that these critical programs efficiently and effectively allocate funds.  For instance, they appreciate that in implementing the Broadband Infrastructure Program (BIP) and Tribal Broadband Connectivity Program (TBCP), NTIA has demonstrated the importance of establishing detailed standards to assess applications.  Similarly, they see the value in the FCC’s Uniendo a Puerto Rico Fund and Connect USVI program, which incorporated a single round, sealed bid application process and evaluated applicants on three criteria with minimum thresholds that must be met: network performance, network resiliency and redundancy, and price per location.

They have also seen program designs that, if allowed to be used by states, would thwart the objectives that Congress intended for the BEAD Program.  As many Members are painfully aware, some states deploying government support funding failed to establish robust standards, did not indicate how they would weigh the standards, and did not evaluate submissions based on quantitative metrics.  This sort of freewheeling construct introduces extraneous considerations into the decision making process, preventing awards from being made based on merit.  Similarly, the FCC’s Rural Digital Opportunity Funddid not adequately vet applicants’ experience, financial wherewithal, and technical capabilities.  As a result, too many applicants that used commercially unproven technologies outbid more qualified providers; some of these applicants have already defaulted.  Such flawed processes dissuade providers from participating, undermine public trust that the process was fair and that the government agencies were careful stewards of the public’s dollars, and, perhaps most importantly, will not result in the broadband deployment gap being closed in the most cost effective manner. 

We’ve used these experiences and others to inform our recommendations to NTIA for the BEAD Program. Those recommendations include:

  • Establishing and requiring states to use uniform grant applicant processes, including the use of a standard application form and a single round, sealed bid process to score applicants, that are clear and understandable, impartial, and auditable;
  • Establishing and mandating that states in evaluating bids apply standards and quantitative metrics that carry out the directives, priorities, and preferences in the statute, including by prioritizing: the deployment of future-proof (fiber) networks, applications form experienced and financially capable providers, project areas with the highest percentage of unserved or underserved areas, applications that are cost-effective (i.e. price-per-location requested is lowest), and applicants who commit to signing up a minimum percentage of households to service;
  • Harmonizing the definitions of “unserved” and “underserved” locations used in the program with those used by the FCC for its Broadband Data Map;
  • Ensuring funding is properly allocated to states by requiring NTIA and states use a version of the FCC’s map that accurately identifies locations that are unserved and undeserved;
  • Ensuring states properly award funding by establishing and requiring states to apply a uniform challenge process that is transparent, impartial, and auditable;
  • Clarifying that a provider’s participation in the FCC’s Affordable Connectivity Program complies with the obligation to offer a “low-cost broadband service option” and that states may not regulate the rates charged for a “low-cost broadband service option” offered by a provider who receives funding;
  • Refraining from requiring states to prioritize, or otherwise give preferences to, projects that meet special regulatory requirements that are not mandated by the statute and do not apply to all broadband providers; and
  • Implementing robust accountability measures to prevent waste, fraud, and abuse of BEAD Program funds.

Ultimately, Congress made NTIA responsible for the success, or failure, of this program, even though states will be responsible for its execution.  NTIA thus must establish standards and processes for states to follow and provide proper oversight throughout the implementation process.

By adhering to the recommendations above and establishing clear rules and metrics at the outset of the program, NTIA will ensure that the right projects are selected from the right applicants.  In turn, the program can achieve its full potential — getting more people across the country access to high performance, reliable broadband service. The team at ACA Connects will continue to engage with NTIA to assist the agency in designing a program that meets these goals.