Article

Rural Commenters Hope BEAD Is the Anti-RDOF

Randy Sukow

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Fiber Spool

The Biden Administration’s stated goal is to end the digital divide. The $42.45 billion Broadband Equity, Access and Deployment (BEAD) program, part of the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act (IIJA) passed last fall, is the vehicle that will reach or come close to reaching that goal, it hopes. The National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA) asked the public and telecommunications industry which rules should drive the vehicle. Rural organizations replied that BEAD should be the anti-RDOF.

The 2020 Rural Digital Opportunity Fund reverse auction held to long-established FCC universal service program traditions. It sought to be “technology neutral” allowing broadband providers using any form of communications link to seek funding over given geographic areas. The Commission’s rules gave preferences to the fastest proposals up to 1 Gbps but held out the possibility that some areas could build with speeds below 100 Mbps downstream.  It set timetables for the bidders to complete broadband construction projects but did not enforce many other requirements.

In comments to NTIA last week, rural interests stated a clear preference for fiber and had no patience with slow networks. “Any network using the much-needed BEAD funding … should be a robust fiber network that not only meets current household and business needs, but will also be ‘future proof’ for decades down the road,” NRECA said in comments (PDF) filled late last week.

Both NRECA and NTCA – The Rural Broadband Association called for minimum speeds of 100 Mbps symmetrical. “More specifically, NTIA should use the leeway granted by the [IIJA] to establish a clear and heavily weighted priority through the BEAD program for supporting networks constructed to meet the 100 Mbps symmetrical standard,” NTCA said (PDF). “Doing so will ensure that rural Americans are able to receive the same level of service as urban Americans now and well into the future, making the [IIJA] the truly historic and once-in-a-generation investment it is intended to be.”

A year ago NRTC, NRECA, NTCA and many other rural organizations documented how the FCC allowed bidders into the RDOF auction that did not have the financial or technical qualifications to build broadband networks. Some RDOF awards have defaulted in the months since due to the controversy and several billions of dollars meant for distribution through RDOF Phase I remain unused. “Accountability,” NTCA said, becomes a necessity as NTIA prepares the BEAD program.

Past broadband funding programs have failed to “publish transparent, objective standards for applicants and technologies, have failed to vet providers prior to welcoming their participation, and/or aimed for broadband speeds that are designed first and foremost to ‘let all providers play’ rather than focusing on long-term consumer needs,” NTCA said.

As an alternative, the association called on NTIA require states distributing BEAD funds to:

  • Publish objective financial, technical and operational standards for all applicants seeking funds.
  • Require a licensed engineer located in the state to “sign-off” on the state’s standards.
  • Vet applicants based on those standards.

At the same time, NRECA seeks to give states flexibility in some matters. For example, the federal government has been distributing funds to support broadband projects under FCC, Agriculture Department and Commerce Department programs for several years. The rules of some of those programs prohibit recipients of money from one program to collect funds from another.

“NTIA should allow [BEAD] grant funds to finance areas already covered by RDOF and other funding as long as the additional funding is used for complimentary, and not duplicative, purposes. For example, funding from one source could be used to install the fiber, while funding from another could be used to pay for the electronics,” NRECA said.

Other rural organizations filed comments with NTIA.

  • America’s Communications Association (ACA Connects) represents rural cable TV providers: “First, states must distribute program funds to ‘all’ unserved locations within the state before distributing funds to underserved locations. Second, states must distribute program funds to ‘all’ underserved locations within the state before distributing funds to community anchor institutions. Third, states may award any remaining funds to connect eligible community anchor institutions. The only exceptions to these requirements are that an ‘unserved service project’ and ‘underserved service project’ may include up to 20 percent of served locations.”
  • The Rural Wireless Association favored closer support of fiber/fixed wireless hybrids: “Wireless networks, similar to fiber networks, can easily meet the minimum service speed standards set out in [IIJA]. Wireless networks can provide these speeds of service given a sufficient amount of spectrum. Wireless networks can also provide low enough latency to support real-time, interactive applications and can, at times, provide lower latency than fiber networks. Wireless networks also have similar and perhaps greater dependability compared to fiber networks, in the face of network outages.”
  • The Wireless Internet Service Providers Association (WISPA) favors “efficient use of federal funds” by avoiding overbuilds of existing broadband networks: “While many WISPA members will choose to ‘play offense’ by participating in the BEAD program [and perhaps other government programs], many others will choose to ‘play defense’ through ongoing private investment intended to prevent inefficient and competitive government funding and by challenging applications that may seek to provide service to ineligible locations. WISPA appreciates that this is a significant challenge, and merely defining what constitutes inefficient overbuilding is an elusive prospect somewhat dependent on how those funds can be used.”

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