Fiber and Wireless Companies Agree States Should Incentivize Local Permitting Reform

WASHINGTON, August 25, 2023 – Virginia became the first state to release volume two of its Broadband Equity Access and Deployment program for public comment last week, followed closely by Louisiana on Friday.  

The two states seem to be in a contest for “first in the nation” status in implementation of the signature program $42.5 billion program for broadband infrastructure under the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act of 2021. Louisiana was the first state to publicly release its five-year and digital equity plans in May and which released it initial proposal volume two on Friday. Many states are looking to Virginia and Louisiana to pave the way forward in designing BEAD program subgrants and answer questions on how to allocate broadband serviceable locations and how to score applications. 

Dr. Tamarah Holmes, Virginia’s state broadband officer, has said that the state is on an accelerated timeline for deployment of EBAD funds. It was the first to release the first volume of its initial proposal, due within 180 days of receiving allocation announcements in late June.  

Initial proposal volume one outlines how the state will run their state challenge process, which builds on the Federal Communications Commission’s national broadband map. Volume two details the state’s subgrant program. Once approved, states will have access to at least 20 percent of allocated funds. 

Virginia’s initial proposal, volume two, outlined the state’s vision for closing the digital divide, addressing adoption issues and enhancing economic growth and job creation. It hopes to complete construction of BEAD funded projects by 2027 and 2028 and increase adoption of the federal broadband subsidy program American Connectivity Program and invest all BEAD money by the end of 2024. 

The state’s selection process for BEAD will begin accepting pre-applications form applicants over a 60-day period. Pre-applications must include high level information about the applicant and a statement of qualification for building broadband to unserved and underserved areas of the state.  

After the pre application submission deadline, Virginia will publish defined application areas to conflict project areas so that no two applicants are proposing to serve the same locations. Applicants will be required to propose to serve all locations in an application area when submitting applications, “the Office of Broadband will not entertain proposals which do not seek to provide broadband access to all locations within a defined application area.” 

Full applications are due 90 days prior the publishing of application areas, which the state office will review and announce. It will also publish a timeline of the process on the office website.  

Scoring for BEAD applications will be 45 percent the most cost-efficient proposal, evaluated by the total funding requested to provide broadband access to a defined application area. 20 percent of the score will be based on affordability, referring the applicant’s commitment to provide the most affordable total price to customer for 1 Gigabit symmetrical speed. If the service package is at or below $100 per month, the applicant will receive full credit for this section. 

Fair labor practices will take up 10 percent of project scoring. Applicants must demonstrate plans to comply with federal labor and employment laws or produce a record of compliance to these laws. Speed to deployment consists of 5 percent of the score in which providers are scored based on the timeline they produce. The remaining 20 percent is given to local and tribal coordination efforts. 

“It is firmly expected that funding available under the BEAD program will address all unserved, underserved and community anchor institutions that lack broadband access,” read Virginia’s plan. 

Louisiana emphasizes a ‘sense of urgency’

Louisiana’s initial proposal volume two draft outlined that its goal is to provide reliable internet to all residents with a “sense of urgency.” Accordingly, the state will be looking for funded projects to be constructed and executed in the next five years. 

The state differs from Virginia in the way it plans to execute its subgrant process and score project applications. Although it will organize the eligible locations in the state into a set of predefined areas, prospective subgrantees will have “wide flexibility” to define their proposed project areas, Louisiana proposes. Proposals can be submitted in the form of groups of project areas as defined by the state. 

Higher cost locations will be paired with more desirable eligible locations within each designated area to ensure that providers are equally as competitive for these hard-to-reach areas. 

ConnectLA will release pre-qualification requirements to interested prospective subgrantees as well as a list of proposed predefined areas, after which subgrantees can provide required financial, operational, managerial and technical qualifications. Prospective subgrantees will be notified after this window whether they have been deemed qualified to participate in the program. They will then submit round one applications.  

Applications will be analyzed to identify any overlap between applications. Any project that brings fiber to the home that does not overlap with any other application will be awarded at the funding level requested, read the proposal. Round two applications will then commence.  

Louisiana proposes to rate applications on a point system. Out of a score of 200 possible points, projects will be awarded based on the percentage of maximum available funds requested for a total project area and the percentage of improvement over reference service pricing. It will rank out of 100 possible points a holistic score on fair labor practices based on compliance record. 

Additionally, it plans to allocate points to an applicant for enforceable deployment plans faster than 48 months, including economically challenged areas, committing to designated areas that lack resiliency infrastructure, affirmative support from tribal and local stakeholders. It will provide 50 points for fiber to the home projects.  

Scoring varies significantly from Virginia’s plan. But both prioritize meeting unserved needs, fair labor practices and affordability. Initial proposals are open for a 30-day comment period.