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Trends in State BEAD Plans: Common Challenges

Trends in State BEAD Plans: Common Challenges

September 18, 2023

As keeper of the $42.45 billion Congress has appropriated for broadband through the Broadband Equity, Access, and Deployment (BEAD) program, the National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA) requires states and territories to develop iterative plans for maximizing broadband access among their residents. Grantees are currently putting out their Five-Year Plans, the first of multiple documents describing their current broadband needs, anticipated concerns, and plans for addressing them.

With around one-third of states' and territories’ plans already published, trends among grantees’ anticipated concerns can provide early indications of where federal intervention might be necessary. Indeed, some common expected barriers are already emerging. Nearly every plan, for example, mentions the same perennial concern about access to rights of way and utility poles, and acquiring permission to build out infrastructure, all of which can hold up a deployment timeline through unstandardized or unregulated fees or lengthy approval processes. For example, Arizona conducted a survey of ISPs that identifies factors like permitting speed and access to utility poles as some of the top deterrents to applying for funding. Maine notes that “access, data management, insurance, and regulations around utility poles require significant resources to navigate, requiring systemic intervention.”

Because the national timeline for BEAD buildouts will create fierce competition for limited resources like labor and material, multiple grantees have also brought up concerns about accessing these necessary resources. Labor deficits—precipitated by continuing factors such as skills mismatches, an aging workforce, and lackluster recruitment—will likely be exacerbated by increased demand.

And with so many states and territories competing for the same materials at the same time, the majority of plans note both access to affordable materials and supply chain stability as a major concern. Supply chains were hurt by the COVID-19 pandemic, and access to many critical materials remains uncertain. Buy-America (BA) regulations that further limit the pool of available materials are likely to only compound already intense demand, and multiple states list these restrictions as a potential obstacle. Nevada, for example, includes a “resilient supply chain that meets [BA] Requirements” as a gap in its needs assessment; Ohio directly cites BA requirements as an expected cost pressure. Pennsylvania asserts that “supply limitations affected by external forces such as [BA]” may reduce access to the resources necessary for a broadband build. A related common refrain is that inflation will cause delays or leave some communities unserved as higher prices for broadband inputs stretch funding to its limit.

Another theme is grantees’ reliance on necessarily imprecise broadband location mapping—as Ohio puts it, an “incomplete view of service availability” with the federal maps still imperfect. Though the Federal Communications Commission’s (FCC’s) updated location mapping is a significant improvement on previous versions, the massive undertaking and static nature of broadband location mapping means that there will always be flaws, and BEAD allocations are contingent on identifying unserved and underserved locations through maps. This means that funding recipients are tasked with identifying inaccuracies and ensuring comprehensive data collection. Many states have built their own maps, which can create additional uncertainty if they contradict the FCC’s data, and additional factors like assessing coverage over multi-family dwellings can further complicate matters.

Navigating the existing web of federal broadband programs is another common concern. Many unserved locations are ineligible for BEAD funding if a provider has made a buildout commitment through another existing program, and several grantees note that overlapping programs may leave some locations unserved altogether if the original provider does not complete deployment as promised.

Some states are identifying barriers that, while not universal, are likely not unique. Hawaii, for example, has a dispersed population with a high percentage of unhoused or otherwise historically marginalized residents, and since many major and growing reasons for non-adoption connect to factors related to marginalization—lack of trust, low awareness of affordable broadband plans, or lack of digital literacy—developing strategies to encourage adoption among these populations will be a national challenge. Though BEAD’s primary mandate is to complete deployment, addressing adoption gaps is both a viable use of any remaining funds and a growing part of closing the digital divide. Even providing service to residents lacking reliable power or a stable address will be a significant task, and the desire of many states to serve every resident including those without a stable address, when coupled with the funding’s location-based allocation, represents an area of possible ambiguity.

Some states further cite a “not in my backyard” (NIMBY) problem. Idaho, for example, mentions “anti-growth advocacy”—broad resistance to infrastructural builds in remote areas for fear of incentivizing population growth that encroaches on farmlands—that the state will need to navigate when completing some rural buildouts.

While many grantees have their own unique historical, topographical, and climate-focused challenges to contend with, to the extent that these problems are shared, some solutions might be generalizable across state lines. And to some extent, the major challenge for all grantees is balancing priorities—as Maine puts it—that is the question of how to “[manage] the dynamic tension of designing solutions for everyone while prioritizing those who are most disadvantaged.”

Even states themselves cannot anticipate every problem they’ll have, and this high-level overview only touches on some possible reasons that BEAD projects might go astray. While it is unsurprising that many expected barriers are familiar ones—and more unique problems are less likely to be anticipated at all—the predictable nature of many of these barriers means that preemptive mitigations should go a long way. Regulatory measures that, for example, streamline access to rights of way, put timeframes on permitting approval, preemptively expand the broadband labor force, and enable use of all viable materials will go a long way toward alleviating the worst of these likely obstacles and maximizing the efficacy of BEAD broadband projects.

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