DALLAS, March 29, 2023 — Local broadband stakeholders should take advantage of the time before federal grant funding is disbursed to make detailed plans and build strong community relationships, according to state broadband officials and industry experts at Connected America on Wednesday.
“I like to start with setting reasonable expectations — it takes a while to design a grant program, administer it, score applications,” said Earnie Holtrey, deputy director of the Indiana Broadband Office. “And then once the ink dries on the contract, the real work begins, and the implementation timelines… can stretch out six or eight years.”
While many state officials are eagerly awaiting funding from the $42.5 billion Broadband Equity, Access and Deployment Program and other government initiatives, taking the time to thoroughly plan will be key to maximizing the awards, advised John Tait, director for North America at Biarri Networks.
“The giant influx of money in and of itself is not a panacea,” he said. “The more detailed your plan is [and] the more data you have available, the faster you’re able to shift and make better use of that capital when it does come.”
BEAD funds are unlikely to be disbursed before early 2024, Holtrey predicted. This gives state broadband offices, service providers and other stakeholders a year to refine their plans and educate their local communities, he said.
Local leaders should then “use the next four years to know where your local assets are and really begin to leverage those,” said Brian Mefford, vice president of broadband strategy at VETRO.
Although the federal grant processes move slowly, Holtrey encouraged stakeholders to begin planning and launching connectivity projects as soon as possible. “Spend some money now, get some projects going — there’s still going to be plenty of projects to do when the BEAD money comes around,” he said. “And we really know that even after BEAD, probably, it’s not going to be completely done.”
One potential first step is investing in education at the local level in order to become a trusted resource, Holtrey added.
State broadband officers “don’t just need to be a vehicle to transmit funds — they need to be an educator for their state,” Tait said. “They need to be a resource for their communities.”
Tait also emphasized the importance of local community involvement, calling it a “key common denominator to projects that are successful.”
“Where you’ve got that engagement and that drive at the local level, typically, you’ll see a really, really good outcome in a broadband deployment,” he said.
Glen Howie, director of the Arkansas State Broadband Office, said that his team is fostering this engagement by visiting each individual county, meeting with local leaders and helping them to create their own connectivity plans.
“Yes, there’s a lack of capacity, but there’s strong passion,” he said.
Grant programs that operate at the state and local levels are better able to work with regional providers, said Amanda Hofer, assistant general manager at the Central Texas Telephone Cooperative. “When it’s made at a federal level, they don’t understand the microeconomics and the players who are there supporting those local communities, so… the communities do not always get served the way that is best for them.”
However, local operations often involve a separate problem: “They just don’t have the manpower and the resources, and they don’t even know where to begin,” Hofer said.
Another challenge is that some of the compliance requirements of federal grant programs are difficult for small, local service providers to meet, Howie said. “That’s something that we have to continue as an office, as a state, to try to triage.”