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BEAD Program’s Fiber Bias Pushes States to Overspend on Broadband, Neglecting Other Causes of the Digital Divide, New ITIF Report Concludes

WASHINGTON—Congress has allocated more than $42 billion to bridge the “digital divide.” But that effort risks falling short of its potential because the federal Broadband Equity, Access and Deployment (BEAD) program encourages states to overspend on high-end fiberoptic infrastructure at the expense of digital inclusion initiatives, according to a new report from the Information Technology and Innovation Foundation (ITIF).

ITIF analyzed the initial BEAD funding proposals that 34 states submitted to the National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA), which administers the program, to assess whether their plans would efficiently address all of the root causes of America’s digital divide—not just inadequate broadband infrastructure. So far, only nine states have earned an A in ITIF’s analysis—Arkansas, the District of Columbia, Georgia, Idaho, Iowa, Maine, Michigan, Oregon, and Virginia.

“NTIA encourages states to make fiber the default choice for broadband infrastructure, but that is often the costliest option. Prioritizing fiber depletes resources that could address the rest of the problem,” said ITIF Analyst Jessica Dine, who authored the report. “States could be using BEAD to cover underfunded digital inclusion efforts such as digital navigation and literacy programs. Mismanaged BEAD funding ultimately comes at the expense of giving every American the opportunity to get online.”

The report explores states’ adherence to three major criteria:

  1. States should practice true tech neutrality.
  2. States should create a regulatory and programmatic environment that fosters efficiency.
  3. States should address digital inclusion within BEAD.

ITIF’s grading exercise aims to alert states whose current trajectories risk costing them program success in the future. The report is accompanied by an interactive data visualization showing ITIF’s assessment of states’ plans, which will be updated as more submissions are graded.

The report explains that while providing high-quality broadband everywhere is a necessary first step toward universal connectivity, a wide range of technologies is available to cover the remaining pockets of the country that don’t yet have broadband infrastructure. If states are open to less-costly alternatives to fiber, then they should be able to use BEAD funds to achieve universal coverage and still have resources to spare for other digital inclusion programs.

States can work around NTIA’s preference for fiber by requesting waivers to select economical bids in certain areas instead or by setting a cost-per-location threshold that limits fiber networks to where they are financially feasible. States must use every tool available to them to see the strongest long-term results, ITIF argues, and NTIA should support states attempting to do so by approving waivers or cost thresholds.

The most successful states will use the difference saved by deploying fiber selectively to fund digital inclusion activities, directly embedding digital equity procedures into their BEAD programs and encouraging local communities to implement BEAD-focused programs and events.

“Each state receiving funding should keep an eye on other states’ plans as they emerge and look to them for inspiration. Addressing broadband needs and effectively implementing the BEAD program is a complex, ongoing task that requires a thoughtful, collaborative approach. To complete deployment, address all of the digital divide’s root causes, and ultimately provide every American the opportunity to get online, state policymakers must be able to adjust when the broadband landscape, available resources, or even community needs change,” said Dine.

Read the full report.

Contact: Austin Slater, [email protected]


The Information Technology and Innovation Foundation (ITIF) is an independent, nonprofit, nonpartisan research and educational institute focusing on the intersection of technological innovation and public policy. Recognized by its peers in the think tank community as the global center of excellence for science and technology policy, ITIF’s mission is to formulate and promote policy solutions that accelerate innovation and boost productivity to spur growth, opportunity, and progress.

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