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Broadband Buildout Will Be Slow to Reach Everyone

May 31, 2022 by Madeline Hughes
Broadband Buildout Will Be Slow to Reach Everyone
(Photo by Dan McCue)

WASHINGTON — Slow and steady will be the approach for getting everyone connected to the internet while the government disperses billions of dollars to build out broadband over the next few years.

“We are going to go as quickly as we can while having wise investment,” said Evan Feinman, director of the Broadband Equity, Access and Deployment Program at the National Telecommunications and Information Administration, while speaking at a virtual event for the Technology Policy Institute Tuesday.

Feinman spoke with internet equity professionals and advocates about NTIA’s recently released Notice of Proposed Funding Opportunities, which guides states on how to apply for the government’s funds. This summer states are applying for up to $5 million to create their five-year plans to build out the broadband infrastructure.

Those plans will help the government distribute the $42.5 billion for the physical infrastructure needs through the “Internet for All” initiative. States will get a minimum of $100 million and territories will get at least $25 million each through the program.

The staggering amount of money provides a “once in a lifetime opportunity,” said Michelle P. Connolly, professor of the practice of economics at Duke University.

The government has to make sure it’s “not just all the money being spent in the easy areas or easier areas,” Connolly said. 

Her sentiments were echoed by others speaking at the event who wanted some reassurance the government had oversight to ensure the funds get to those without internet access in the hardest-to-reach places.

“There is a lot of wiggle room here and I’m worried the eye is not being kept on the prize,” Connolly said. 

It’s likely the “boring reporting requirements” that will provide insight into whether programs receiving government funds are actually getting them to the right people, according to Sarah Oh Lam, a senior fellow at the Technology Policy Institute who has been researching broadband connectivity.

She had previously attempted to access broadband connectivity data from other government programs, but often there are many unknowns if clear data reporting isn’t required, she said.

“It’s mind boggling that we wouldn’t create a requirement,” Lam said.

Insufficient data has plagued broadband rollouts for years because of bad maps from the Federal Communications Commission, Connolly said, because, “No one is willing to force people to give the right data.”

Paroma Sanyal, a senior consultant at The Brattle Group, suggested a rubric the NTIA could give to states to get information on the buildout from broadband providers receiving grants.

It will be important to “actually see impact in the communities,” explained Evelyn Remaly, a partner at the law firm Wilkinson Barker Knauer.

The required community engagement is also important to ensure transparency in how the funds are being used, which will create accountability for local governments and states overseeing the variety of programs, Feinman said.

“The vast majority of the information and, in fact, the program will be” publicly available except for very limited circumstances of business competition interests, Feinman said.

There will also be federal employees working with each state broadband office to provide oversight and be a resource to residents, businesses and other organizations if they have trouble with the programs, Feinman said.

Madeline can be reached at maddie@thewellnews.com and @MadelineHughes

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