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The COVID-19 pandemic exhibited how vital broadband is for the future of American business and education. The pandemic also highlighted the disparities in broadband access across the country, a problem the Broadband Equity, Access, and Development Program (BEAD) hopes to address. BEAD will allocate $42 billion in funds to applicants for projects that will deploy broadband internet to unserved and underserved areas as well as projects that aim to get people onto broadband where it already exists.
What is BEAD?
On May 13th, 2022, the National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA) announced the funding for what would become the Broadband Equity, Access, and Development Program (BEAD). Funded by the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law, BEAD includes $42 billion for projects to expand high-speed internet access across the country. This federal grant program will fund partnerships between states or territories, communities, and other stakeholders to aid with the deployment of high-speed internet. BEAD aims to prioritize unserved and underserved locations; unserved refers to locations with no internet access or only have access to download speeds under 25 megabits per second (Mbps) coupled with upload speeds under 3 Mbps, and underserved refers to locations that only have access to internet speeds under 100/20 Mbps. As established by NTIA, a state or locality recipient of BEAD funding may not classify an area as “unserved” if the area is already subject to an enforceable federal, state, or local commitment to deploy broadband.
Any U.S. state, territory, or the District of Columbia is considered an “Eligible Entity” for funding through BEAD. To receive this funding, an Eligible Entity must prioritize competitively awarding funds to projects that will deploy at least 100/20 Mbps broadband to unserved locations. An unserved service project is defined as a project in which at least 80% of broadband-serviceable locations served by the project are unserved locations. Once an Eligible Entity certifies all unserved areas have access to broadband, service projects in underserved areas are the next priority. An underserved service project is defined as a project in which at least 80% of broadband-serviceable locations served by the project are unserved locations or underserved locations.
Grant recipients and subgrantees–entities that receive grant funds from an Eligible Entity to carry out eligible activities–must also demonstrate their qualifications to build and maintain broadband networks to ensure that taxpayer funds are spent responsibly. These qualifications include robust financial, managerial, operational, and technical capabilities.
The Notice of Funding Opportunity that announced BEAD laid out over twenty eligible uses of funding. These uses include: the construction, improvement, and/or acquisition of facilities and telecommunications equipment required to provide qualifying broadband service; long-term leases of facilities required to provide qualifying broadband service; personnel costs such as salaries and fringe benefits for staff and consultants providing services directly connected to the implementation of the BEAD project; broadband sign-up assistance and programs that provide technical support; and direct subsidies for use toward broadband subscription, where the Eligible Entity shows that the subsidies will improve affordability for the end user population. Eligible Entities must conduct coordination with local governments, Tribes, community organizations, and individuals within their jurisdiction.
Eligible Entities can work on simultaneous projects using these funds. There is no set order in which projects must be completed, but Eligible Entities must certify to NTIA that their plans will accomplish each of the priorities.
Eligible Entities can use BEAD funding to address both unserved and underserved locations without access to broadband service. It is important to note that funding can be used both to expand broadband deployment and to encourage people who already have access to broadband to adopt it. The majority of those who will need new network facilities deployed are in rural areas. In contrast, the majority of those with access to broadband service but who do not subscribe for whatever reason are in urban areas and will need either financial assistance to afford broadband or support to adopt broadband service.
In 2021, 97.6% of Americans had access to broadband but only 77% of American adults said they had a broadband connection at home. This statistic highlights that some areas might find it more beneficial to focus on the adoption of broadband. Unconnected adults cite cost, a lack of digital skills, and a lack of interest as reasons for not subscribing to internet services. Programs such as the Affordable Connectivity Program seek to provide discounts on broadband services for eligible consumers, which then lowers the cost and can make broadband adoption easier for eligible customers.
To help non-adopters understand how and why to adopt broadband service, Eligible Entities can use the funding for digital navigator programs. Digital navigators are individuals who address the whole digital inclusion process with community members through repeated interactions. Digital navigators are familiar with resources that relate to digital equity, and they help residents learn to use critical online services that provide guidance with food support, rent, education, employment, childcare, government benefits, and more. Because of their ability to understand what might make community members hesitant to use broadband, a digital navigator can help an Eligible Entity identify which additional projects might be needed.
The difference between ensuring deployment and adoption highlights the difference between the needs in rural versus urban areas. Rural areas are more likely to experience a lack of access to broadband internet and will need more projects dedicated to build-out whereas urban areas likely already have access but need to convince individuals to adopt the use of broadband in their homes. Funding from the BEAD program allows Eligible Entities to address both or one of these problems based on the needs of their constituencies.
Eligible Entities’ requests for initial planning funds were due on August 15th, 2022. Within 270 days of submitting their request, Eligible Entities also had to submit a five-year action plan. NTIA has announced that it will allocate funding by June 30, 2023, based on the revised FCC Broadband DATA Map, and send out Notices of Available Amounts to Eligible Entities. If an Eligible Entity receives a Notice of Available Amounts, it has 180 days to submit an initial proposal. The Assistant Secretary (the head of NTIA) will review these proposals to determine if the use of funds is in the public interest, effectuates the purposes of the Infrastructure Act, and complies with Section 60102(f) of the Infrastructure Act which specifies the permissible uses of funds. Should all these conditions be met, the Assistant Secretary will make 20% of the Eligible Entity’s total allocation available. If not, the Eligible Entity will have an opportunity to resubmit an initial proposal or challenge the decision. Eligible Entities will receive the full amount of their allocation within twelve months of the approval of their initial proposal, upon approval of their final proposal detailing the outcome of its competitive subgrantee selection process.
- Broadband: internet with download speeds of at least 25 megabits per second (Mbps) coupled with upload speeds of at least 3 Mbps
- Can be delivered via fiber, wireless, satellite, digital subscriber line (DSL), or cable
- 21 million people in the US do not have internet access
- 44% of adults in households with incomes below $30,000 don’t have broadband
- 30% of American households that have access to broadband service do not subscribe
- 27% of people in rural areas lack access
- 40% of schools and 60% of health care facilities outside metropolitan areas lack broadband
Links to Other Resources
- BroadbandUSA – Broadband Equity, Access, and Development (BEAD) Program
- FCC – Eighth Broadband Progress Report
- Keller & Heckman – Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act Supports Broadband Partnerships
- NCTA – Broadband Facts & Stats
- NCTA – Digital Divide
- National Digital Inclusion Alliance – The Digital Navigator Model
- Pew Charitable Trusts – America’s Digital Divide
- Universal Service Administrative Company – Affordable Connectivity Program
- US Chamber of Commerce – Broadband Funding Explained: What the Administration Got Right and What It Missed in NTIA’s BEAD Program