Promoting Broadband Deployment through Federal Block Grants

By Joshua Broder

 

At the virtual INCOMPAS 2021 Policy Summit, Tilson CEO Josh Broder presented on the advantages of using federal block grants to fund broadband networks and how leaders can communicate these advantages in their advocacy work.

View the full video of Josh's presentation here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5ArK5XCIFGE.

Learn more about Tilson's broadband deployment services.

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Introduction

Federal blocks grants provided to the states have proven to be a fast and effective means to promote and deliver universal broadband. Many states used CARES Act funding to rapidly deploy broadband in response to the pandemic, which provided a new trial of this approach. Tilson advised state governments on their CARES Act broadband programs, designed and built networks for grant recipients, and was itself a grant recipient and ISP. I will share what we learned through the process and provide recommendations going forward.

 

Traditional Broadband Programs

For context, prior to the pandemic, the policy consensus was that expanding broadband coverage to rural areas is best done through established and sometimes monolithic programs like CAFII, RDOF, and ReConnect. These programs are administered by federal agencies with specialized professional programmatic staff like the FCC and USDA. These are big, complex programs with a standardized application process applied uniformly across the country.

Big players tend to be more successful, as they can bear the overhead to apply, pass the literal application requirements like strong balance sheets, and can meet the programmatic requirements on an ongoing basis. ILECs have been the most successful at winning awards and deploying the funds to make more broadband connections under these programs. As a result, these programs:

  • Get broadband to a lot of people.

  • Are slow to deploy.

  • Prevent fraud, waste, and abuse.

  • Are reliant on centralized, federal mapping data with known issues, leaving some premises behind and duplicating coverage in others.

  • Ensure that broadband meets minimum standards including the low federal threshold speed but generally not achieving a highly aspirational speed on a national/globally competitive basis, with the notable exception of RDOF which rewards gigabit speeds. 

In conclusion, these are good programs and should be sustained.

 

THE CARES ACT: A NEW APPROACH

The CARES Act provided an experiment on an alternate approach. States utilized the flexible Coronavirus Relief Fund (CRF) that was provided by the CARES Act. Rural states benefited from a minimum threshold allocation to each state of $1.25B, and while larger states got larger awards, the minimum threshold provided more per capita funding to those rural states.

These funds were available to the states on a broadly discretional basis to respond to the effects of the pandemic. Limited access to school, healthcare, and remote work have been widely felt symptoms of the pandemic, and many states saw the CRF as a tool to help. The CRF was not really intended to be a broadband program, but states had problems, like kids not in school, that could be solved by broadband.

Instead of a monolithic federal program, these funds were flexible with state-driven uses. The main constraints of these funds were that they needed to be used for expenses that were "necessary expenditures incurred due to the public health emergency with respect to the Coronavirus disease [and] were incurred during the period that begins on March 1, 2020 and ends on December 30, 2020.”

According to the Pew Research Center, 20 states created new programs or expanded existing ones with these funds to support:

  • Digital learning
  • Telehealth
  • Public WiFi
  • Residential broadband infrastructure

The December 30th deadline led to quick, targeted projects, with minimal administrative overhead. The programs had features that the policy consensus would say were bad: truncated application review; low project oversight; lack of long-term controls, reporting, and audit; disaggregated data; unforgiving timelines; and lack of uniformity in mission, criteria, and applicant type.

The structure of the funds devolved decision-making to states using their local knowledge and mapping data and lead to proposals from providers experienced in local markets. These providers could mobilize quickly and make targeted investments based on known need won grants. While there was some overlap, in general, these state-level applicants were the opposite of the typical federal program respondents.

 

ADVOCATING FOR BLOCK GRANTS – TELLING STORIES OF IMPACT

Going forward, I think we should look closely at similar block grants in any future federal broadband funding, and the best way to talk about the impact of this approach is to storytell about the projects themselves. More evaluation of these programs and the results would be helpful, but I’m going to share some of Tilson’s experiences and what they suggest about how this might inform the approach in the future. Here are three examples of the local manifestations of these block grants from my prospective. On its face, there was not enough time under the statute to do any new infrastructure deployment. But a lot of infrastructure got deployed as a result. Local projects find a way.

 

1. NHEC

The Connecting New Hampshire Emergency Broadband Expansion Program provided $50M for local broadband “flex funds” grants. The New Hampshire Electric Cooperative applied for one of these grants and was awarded $6.7M to deploy in 4 towns in rural New Hampshire (Colebrook, Stewartstown, Clarksville, and Lempster). NHEC said they would deploy fiber-to-the-home to 900 unserved members, deploying 100 miles of OSP in 100 days. And they did. Tilson’s role was design and engineering, deployment, and building out the network electronics. Key innovations driven at the local level in this project are:

  • Expedited make-ready in partnership with the cooperative.
  • Make-ready was only performed if required to comply with PUC rules, NESC code, Joint Use Agreement (“JUA”), attachment agreements, or to address a safety concern.
  • Temporary fiber attachments where needed to hit our deadlines, like bracket arms, and lowest position on pole.
  • Pole replacements were generally avoided or deferred to the month after the grant deadline, where safe to do so.

 

2. TUCSON, ARIZONA

The City of Tucson received a $4M grant from the State of Arizona to build a modern wireless network using freely available CBRS spectrum and is currently distributing 5,000 in-home wireless hotspots that connect to that network to provide a borderless classroom to students who can’t be in school in person and lack access to high-speed broadband. Tilson’s role was as the local deployment partner to get these systems onto towers and turned up. This project:

  • Required the rapid formation of a vendor ecosystem to leverage new technology and spectrum, leading to durable partnerships that allow replicating this project in communities across the country.
  • Procurement, configuration, and distribution of 5,000 in-home devices, a new function in city government.
  • Evolving the network in real time to build a low-cost roadmap from LTE to 5G.

 

3. VERMONT

Vermont’s COVID-19 Emergency Connectivity Initiative provided a $3.7M grant to serve three towns in northeast Vermont (Danville, St. Johnsbury, and Lunenburg) across rugged terrain and a very difficult make-ready environment, including off-road pole lines through the woods. Tilson’s role in this case was as the grant applicant and recipient, design builder, and ISP providing service. This project has been about partnerships and good data:

  • Tilson partnered with the Vermont Electric Power Co., a local electric transmission company, swapping dark fiber to reduce overbuild and improving the reach of both companies’ networks.

  • Green Mountain Power, the local electric distribution company, purchased the ILEC’s portion of their joint-use poles and is now the sole pole owner, putting them in a position to expedite make-ready.

  • The state provided address-level data of which premises were unserved or had limited service and at what level. This data was used to identify priority locations for the use of grant funds. The state used address-level analysis in scoring of grant applications. This permitted Tilson to develop a targeted network design to support each grant application and gave the state faith that the money was being used to actually target homes that were unserved.

 

SIMPLER IS BETTER

At Tilson, we have looked at and commented on a number of proposed new federal broadband bills. We love tailored, technically detailed programs like what we have seen in those bills. Those kinds of detailed rules are really helpful in getting a targeted policy outcome and are what we often build for our state government consulting clients. However, in the context of COVID-19 relief, each of those requirements is its own poison pill that will prevent the distribution of funds and the construction of infrastructure.

Even the limited requirements of the CARES Act were nearly crippling for some states. States are by nature risk-averse and want to be sure to comply with every jot and tittle of the federal rules, which will always be just ambiguous enough for someone to say “no”, thereby freezing the whole machinery. If the requirements weren’t included in the CARES Act, the states would need to build new programs, which loses all the efficiencies and advantages of what was built before and will invite further delays as states build, check compliance, and wait for Treasury or other agency guidance.

If the goal is to get relief out quickly and get infrastructure built in a way that helps folks in the near term, simpler is better.

 

IN SUMMARY

So, how to communicate about it? Tell stories. There are plenty coming out of the CARES Act-funded broadband projects. As a final note, I want to point out that while many of the unserved and underserved people in the CARES Act funded projects were in rural communities, there are significant challenges on access, affordability, and adoption in urban areas as well that would benefit from the flexibility of state block grant programs. They shouldn’t be overlooked.

 

HOW TILSON CAN HELP

Tilson's core mission is to build communications and information infrastructure that reaches all Americans, partnering with public and private sector community leadership to plan, design, build, and maintain sustainable and cost-effective broadband networks. 

Learn more about our broadband consulting, design, engineering, and contruction services: https://tilsontech.com/broadband-funding

Or contact us to discuss your specific broadband deployment needs.

 

Joshua Broder

Joshua Broder serves as CEO of Tilson, which under his leadership, has grown from less than 10 employees to over 550, earning a top spot on the Inc. 5000 list for the past ten years. He is also the founder of Tilson’s public utility affiliate, which develops, owns, and leases back 5G infrastructure including poles, towers, dark fiber and neutral host indoor and outdoor wireless networks nationwide. Josh cut his teeth in leadership as an Army Signal Officer on missions in Europe, the Middle East, and Central Asia, where he was awarded the Bronze Star for service in Afghanistan designing, building and operating the communications network for US forces. Josh holds a bachelor’s degree from Middlebury College and is a graduate of AT&T’s Operation Hand Salute at JFK University with a certificate in entrepreneurial studies. Josh is currently serving a gubernatorial appointment as the co-chair of Maine’s economic recovery committee, is on the board of Versant Power, VETRO Fibermap, Kleinschmidt associates, and Skowhegan Savings Bank.

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