Fast, affordable Internet access for all.
Should the BEAD Program Be As Onerous As It Seems? - Episode 512 of the Community Broadband Bits Podcast
This week’s podcast comes from the Fiber Connect 2022 conference held in Nashville, Tennessee last month where Christopher caught up with Heather Mills, Vice President for Grants and Funding Strategies at CTC Technology & Energy. During the conversation, Heather challenges Christopher’s assessment of the BEAD program in the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act (IIJA) and what he calls the program’s “complex and onerous” requirements. Heather kicks things off by telling Christopher to “get over it” because ultimately the program uses tax dollars, emphasizing how important it is that those funds are not misspent.
Christopher and Heather then dive into the various criticisms that have been lodged since the BEAD NOFO was released, including the letter of credit requirement, compliance with the Davis-Bacon Act, environmental assessments and the meaning of “climate resiliency,” and whether the various regulatory hoops program participants have to navigate will ultimately crowd-out smaller and mid-sized ISPs.
This show is 34 minutes long and can be played on this page or via Apple Podcasts or the tool of your choice using this feed.
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Listen to other episodes here or view all episodes in our index. See other podcasts from the Institute for Local Self-Reliance here.
Thanks to Arne Huseby for the music. The song is Warm Duck Shuffle and is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution (3.0) license.
Heather Mills (00:07):
It's about being good stewards of our tax dollars, everybody's tax dollars not just those who want something or those who don't want something.
Christopher Mitchell (00:15):
Welcome to another episode of the Community Broadband Bits Podcasts. I'm Christopher Mitchell at the Institute for Local Self-Reliance and a little bit self-aware that I'm in a, a room of people walking around here at the Opry Land. we are at Fiber Connect, and I finally have an opportunity in person to do an interview with Heather Mills, who is the Vice President for grants and fund making fun. I ran outta Steam there. Good. You
Heather Mills (00:46):
Christopher Mitchell (00:46):
You got it. Mostly grants and fundraising opportunities. <LAUGH>
Heather Mills (00:48):
Grant and funding strategies. Grant and funding strategies. You got it.
Christopher Mitchell (00:51):
Yeah. So and, and when we're in person, we get to have a little bit of more fun with these intros. So Heather, I think you, and let me just embarrass you for a second. but I feel like you're one of the, the secrets behind CTC in that like, Ooh, everyone knows Joanne's name and everyone knows that CTC does a ton of work from working with states to cities, to counties to all, all kinds of things. wouldn't surprise me if at one point you had a contract to develop a broadband plan from Mars. Mm. and I feel like you're often behind the scenes holding things together. You've got an incredibly talented staff, but, but you're the one that's not always out there on the road talking about CTC,
Heather Mills (01:29):
But more and more so, and I'll tell you, the Mars contract was complicated. It was so dusty
Christopher Mitchell (01:34):
Heather Mills (01:35):
I, I feel really lucky to work for such a wonderful company. I feel like I have purpose and I am who I am today because of the people that I work with. They, they really are fantastic.
Christopher Mitchell (01:48):
We all know that Joanne's a monster behind closed doors. <laugh>.
Heather Mills (01:51):
No, she is not <laugh>. she's a great mentor and a wonderful friend, and I'm lucky to have that.
Christopher Mitchell (01:56):
Yeah. So I'm curious we're gonna start by you telling me that I'm wrong about a lot of the things I was saying, or at least said. I have the wrong perspective, <laugh>. Okay. As we have people are, are coming by with wheeled suitcases. So we'll see how this all turns out. Usually it's just a nice little pleasant background noise. Yeah. I always like the people are staring at us
Heather Mills (02:14):
Christopher Mitchell (02:15):
Right, right. What's going on? big microphones, you gotta have the big microphones, <laugh>. So I've been, you know, and, and Kim is here, she just stepped away from the table for a second, but Kim McKinley's here, her, me, several other people have been talking about how bead is the most complicated onerous broadband program that the United States government has devised. And you, if I was to be as accurate as I could be, basically said, get over it. <laugh>, this is important stuff. We have to make sure that we have the right qualifications.
Heather Mills (02:43):
This is not an emergency program. This is our tax dollars. Infrastructure dollars. A lot of them. A lot of them. And the team at NTIA, they've designed this to be a thing where they're trying to be as responsible as possible with our tax dollars. It is a planning process and then an implementation process. So yeah. Get over it.
Christopher Mitchell (03:06):
<laugh>. So I, I love, I love it. And first of all, one of the things I love about and I feel like hopefully you're gonna be more direct, Joanne, like in a, when we're having a drink, Joanne will tell me to my face that I'm totally wrong. And then when I put on a microphone, she tries to be nice to me. I don't want you to be nice to me. I want you to tell me that I'm wrong. Like, so let me, let's just, let's go through this for a second because I feel like one of the things that I'm seeing is what you said, I think that they, that these people are N T I A are doing the best they can to try to make sure that they're the best steward of public dollars. Yes. I don't know that they're gonna have that effect, unfortunately. Like, I don't think a letter of credit is really gonna change you know, like the number of, of high quality ISPs that perform.
Heather Mills (03:46):
Right. So you, you've brought up actually you brought up something that should be called the irrevocable letter of credit, which is a very different product than a letter of
Christopher Mitchell (03:54):
Credit. And you're one of the only people that could tell me that <laugh>, most people don't even know.
Heather Mills (03:58):
I think, I think that Will's see some refinements to, to that there've been much, there has been much pushback mm-hmm. <affirmative> as I understand it about that particular requirement in in bead in Middle Mile in general because it sort of it could set a dividing line overall so that we should be getting clarification about that. There has been discussion as I understand it. but for everyone's edification, an irrevocable letter of credit is not a letter of credit. Specifically. It requires the bank to basically set aside the money that you are asking for. Maybe it's 10 million, maybe it's 20 million, maybe it's a hundred million dollars. They can't invest that money. So you are paying a premium for them to not make money on investing that money. And oftentimes they'll do the calculation based on what they project those losses could be. Mm-hmm. <affirmative>. So it could be a very expensive endeavor,
Christopher Mitchell (04:51):
Especially in a time of rapidly changing in for the
Heather Mills (04:53):
Interest rates. Exactly. And for anyone who ha went through the RDOF process, they know exactly what I'm talking about. What's nice about the Middle Mile program is it's a scalable thing. as you make your way through the implementation process, you can reduce the overall requirements for levels of money set aside with the I lock, but I don't recall specifically having three NOFOs issued at the same time was incredibly overwhelming. Right. so sometimes I mix up the, the various requirements in my head, but I don't recall specifically for bead how that was outlined in the applications. And for, to a particular extent. I think the states will have to you know, given the guardrails that were set up in bead, designed that program appropriately for them.
Christopher Mitchell (05:38):
So I just wanted to, to get on the record here on the Broadband BITZ podcast, because this was something that I thought was a real gem in the Connect This show connect this Kim's, Kim's giving me that look here which is which is an amazing show that everyone should watch every minute of, but in it one of, we had on a an ISP from North Carolina Alan Fitzpatrick, Alan runs a wireless I s p and well, it's a wired and wireless i s p. so Alan Fitzpatrick with Open Broadband had applied for a great grant for this part of North Carolina. And he ultimately was denied because this letter of credit issue, even though the company is doing terrific, and the people in that area haven't been served, meanwhile, his company has gone on to continue doing great things. And I, I feel like the FCC has a history of using this letter of credit. It's like a proxy for whether you know, a company is, is solid and in not at risk of default. And I think, you know, in this, we talked about this a little bit last night in other contexts, but I feel like the, the government state and federal governments are too risk averse when it comes to being worried about defaults. I think one of the things that I would say is that in re in response to this is cause I think you're saying
Heather Mills (06:47):
It's our tax dollars,
Christopher Mitchell (06:48):
Chris, I know that it's right, but here's the thing, right? So our tax dollars will be used to put fiber in the ground or steel strand on poles, and if it, if a company goes default, we'll still have those assets unless they really screw it up. So that's where it strikes me. The federal government should invest more in making sure that, that there are good network engineering so that whoever ends up buying it on a fire sale price, after that company goes default, we'll still have those assets and people will still be served.
Heather Mills (07:13):
Sure. I guess there's a, a little bit of, you know, a quality concern too, like from a very high level mm-hmm. <affirmative>, it's our tax dollars I want, I want them to be as particular as possible. And yes. it is very frustrating when you put all that level of effort into applications that don't get funded mm-hmm. <affirmative> for various reasons. a lot of the time these days, it's because those, those programs are oversubscribed and any reason that the agency has to say no, could like creep up mm-hmm. <affirmative>. So it, that is why it is more important than ever. If you don't think that you can meet the guidelines and the specifics and check all of the boxes that, and, and you have questions about those things that as an applicant you are reaching out either to the qualified consultant that I hope you've hired to help you even in, in just the side, you know mm-hmm. <affirmative> advice area qualified or directly to
Christopher Mitchell (08:05):
Qualified, qualified, qualified, qualified consultant
Heather Mills (08:08):
Qualified or directly to the agency themselves to have a conversation about mm-hmm. <affirmative>, why you didn't, or why you can't, or why you don't think you need to. that's really important. checking all of the boxes in a, in a grant application is specifically probably the most important thing that you can do as you're going through and understanding, you know, whether or not you can submit the application. Mm-hmm.
Christopher Mitchell (08:31):
<affirmative> right now, the issue of labor is another major one that comes up. And here, I'm curious cuz you have more visibility into states. I feel like with the work that you do, and I feel like you're kind of on both sides of this, where you're helping states to develop these programs and making sure that, that we're not using taxpayer dollars to push down wages with unscrupulous you know, actors that are trying to get money. at the same time ISPs that do have good labor relations, I feel like get caught in the middle of a deeply fall flawed federal approach, Davis Bacon, to how they actually can implement this and follow the rules. And I don't know, I don't know if you feel that way. When I hear from ISPs, a lot of times I'll hear just that, like, when they, they throw out the kind of wages they're expected to pay, it's out of line with what people actually make when good jobs in these rural areas. at least that's what, so I mean, what
Heather Mills (09:22):
Do you mean? You mean the wages are too low or the wages are
Christopher Mitchell (09:24):
Too high? The wages are too high. So, so for instance, like, like my Did you work, you worked on Btop stuff? Yes. so I remember Reedsburg, Wisconsin when I had spoken with them, you know, like they they're in a situation where they were looking to the, the federal government was expecting them to pay construction wages outta Madison for this work that is done in a rural part of Wisconsin. And and even less specialized work. And they were really frustrated because they were like, we, we can't pay this. You know, like it's a, it's a, it's, it's, it's not only is it a problem for the model that we try to get the money for and, and obviously like, I think we, you've run into this enough that, you know, that many people submit these applications without knowing what it looks like to comply with Davis Bacon
Heather Mills (10:08):
<laugh>. Yeah. I, and I would say that is probably one of the most important pieces. Understanding what you are getting yourself into as you're approaching these applications is really important. I don't have a particular opinion about whether a wage is too high or too low there. Mm-hmm. <affirmative>, that is something that is out of my hands. Mm-hmm. <affirmative> out of your hands even. I do think it's, you
Christopher Mitchell (10:30):
Don't know my power <laugh>.
Heather Mills (10:32):
I do think it's important to pay a living wage to mm-hmm. <affirmative> to people I a good wage and what they're worth. but when you are approaching an application understanding all of those things is mm-hmm. <affirmative> pretty important. And if you're going to spend the time and energy from your staff to put together an application and you don't understand what your overall obligations are, that's a
Christopher Mitchell (10:52):
Problem. Don't do something halfway. Don't really commit to it. You
Heather Mills (10:55):
Are essentially asking the grant making agency to be an investor in your project. Mm-hmm. <affirmative>, that means you need to treat 'em like an investor. Mm-hmm. <affirmative>. and you have to answer to them as well. Right. That is the, the, the framework that I hope everyone thinks about. You are not entitled to grant money just because you filled out an application. You are lining up against all of the other applicants. And most of these applications coming forward here from N T I A, these are merit applications. which means that you have to make sure you go through and understand what the scoring process is and if you don't understand what the scoring process is, you really handicap yourself. Because that should guide you in how you scope out the work and the approach for your application overall.
Christopher Mitchell (11:39):
And every state will have a different scoring process. Most likely probably some will simply utilize the programs that they already have in place and maybe make a few augmentations here and there to fall in line with the requirements of the bead program. Mm-hmm. <affirmative> some may establish whole new programs as well.
Yeah. So another issue is the permitting, which I think you understand far better than I do. Mm-hmm. <affirmative>. But it seems like BEAD requires a higher level of permitting than we've seen in other projects. Yeah. in terms of environmental review, is that not right? Am I just com collapsing Two things together? I
Heather Mills (12:10):
Think what you are focusing on is a requirement for a discussion in the application of the climate resilience that's very different than I was gonna come to that next. I was thinking this separately. I had thought, and this is where I get a little bit confused. I mean cuz I feel like people project under me and understanding these programs that you actually have. And I'm always uncomfortable with it cuz I really just fake it. And so I had thought like there was a level of environmental review that was required for even just attaching to existing poles. if you're building
The NEPA process, which is the National Environmental Preservation Act, and the,
Christopher Mitchell (12:43):
You can laugh at me, it's okay. Others do
Heather Mills (12:44):
and the section 1 0 6, which is the national Historic Preservation Act as well. Anytime you put a shovel on the ground with federal money mm-hmm. <affirmative>, you have to go through the NEPA and one oh section 106 process.
Christopher Mitchell (12:55):
When you say shovel on the ground, like
Heather Mills (12:57):
Before you start
Christopher Mitchell (12:58):
Digging. No, I understand that. But even if you're not digging, you still do it. Correct. So you're just using metaphorically, but but literally, if you're doing a project, a
Heather Mills (13:04):
Project before you start that project Right. You have to get clearance to go ahead and mm-hmm. <affirmative>, it's about due diligence. It's about making sure that you're not going to, you know, ramshaw your way through a, a wetland area mm-hmm. <affirmative> that has, you know, protected species maybe living in it Right. Like turtles or something. Sure. and to make sure that, you know, you're taking care of our land, our
Christopher Mitchell (13:26):
Country. Right. Charismatic microfauna.
Heather Mills (13:28):
But there's a difference between a, a discussion in an application about climate resilience and the NEPA process or the SHPO I think is state historical preservation officer contact for any application that we put together for our clients, we generally do, I'm gonna call it a preliminary environmental report where we go through and it doesn't take us very long to do it. And it's one of the last things that we do once we've got a solid statement of work. Cuz I've got lots of clients who are probably chuckling as they listen to me talk mm-hmm. <affirmative> who like to change their mind about small details at the very end, which affects an entire application.
Christopher Mitchell (14:05):
<laugh>, I remodel my home constantly. Right. And changing mind to last second is the best part about being in charge of something
Heather Mills (14:11):
<laugh>. Sure. Except it causes the people who are doing the work to stay up all night on the night that something is due Yeah. To make sure that it gets done <laugh>. Yep. Or the night, the night before something is due. So those changes trickle down through the entire application. But so we, we typically put together what I would say is the basis for an environmental assessment. Understand that any, almost any broadband project is going to be what is known as categorically excluded in certain ways from a number of those requirements. Because if you're going aerial, you're not really on existing poles, you're not really impacting the environment at all this regular work. And most of the time when you're installing underground your direct boring or trenching in a way that is not going to meet a level of criteria for any state or even the federal government to say we're disturbing so much ground that we have to tell you about
Christopher Mitchell (15:06):
It. Even in California California's a different story. Let Okay. That, that's a whole other
I just wanted to make, you won't have to go into it, I just wanted to make sure cuz see every
Heather Mills (15:13):
State is different, let me put it that way. Sure.
Christopher Mitchell (15:14):
Every state is different. You have the private rate of action perhaps might be a different issue in California.
Heather Mills (15:18):
Yeah, yeah. but we're talking about federal grants, so Sure. in this case, with the climate resilience question, what they're particularly asking is for applicants to explore, Hey, what could happen in your, what's common? Do you get hurricanes? Do you have wildfires? Mm-hmm. <affirmative>, do you have earthquakes? If we install this, if we, if we invest, you know, this money with you, what would happen if something went wrong? What would happen if a, a tornado came around and wiped out all of the poles mm-hmm. <affirmative> that have your infrastructure on it. Right. What happens then?
Christopher Mitchell (15:47):
Well, FEMA takes care of it. Boom, I'm done <laugh>.
Heather Mills (15:51):
so it's an exploration of that. It's more about documenting and checking a box, if you will, of Okay. So we live in in Northern California easier, Northern California and there were absolutely wildfires that came through here before. Here's, you know, what we plan around that potential and how we will, you know, come back from that if needed. that's what they're talking about. Right. and there is specific guidance in, in the application guidance about how to answer that question in particular. And they give you prompts and stuff. So it's not like you're unguided and it shouldn't be looked at as this mountainous thing that you have to climb and put a flag on top of. It's a discussion
Christopher Mitchell (16:31):
And hopefully states will make this more clear. Right. Cause I think some people are looking at the bead rules and they're like, I don't really know how to deal with this. And I was like, okay, well, like you don't have to deal with that. The states are dealing with the bead guidance. They're gonna develop programs that you will then and guidance that you'll follow. Sure. I have to say that when it comes to climate resilience type stuff, like there's nothing you can do in a lot of these cases. Right. I mean, I just think about like Right. That's
Heather Mills (16:53):
Exactly why I say like it's a discussion. Like they don't expect you to solve the environmental issues that lead to
Christopher Mitchell (16:59):
Because the fires are melting conduit as I understand it. Correct. <laugh>, like it's only we're gonna go, oh well we'll just go 30 feet underground <laugh>.
Heather Mills (17:05):
It's a, it's about a due diligence exercise, if you will, of documenting what could happen
Christopher Mitchell (17:09):
And that you're prepared for
Heather Mills (17:10):
It and that you're prepared for it. Mm-hmm. <affirmative> and that's why people shouldn't be lighting their hair on fire over those sorts of things. Is it a little extra effort to have that discussion? Yeah. But again, these are our tax dollars. They wanna understand that you've thought through these things and that you understand what, you know, you're getting yourself into mm-hmm.
Christopher Mitchell (17:26):
<affirmative>. Now, the issue that I have with with some of these issues all combined is that I feel like while there is, again it's this sense of we want to have the due diligence, we don't have the best providers move forward. I just think a lot about, and I don't know if you were involved with Santa Cruz and Cruz io Cruzo, the ISP there, they were looking at a public-private partnership and I really excited about it. It looked pretty cool <laugh> and at the end of of a process of negotiation, the, the is p as I understand it, they may have a different characterization. I think they kinda walked away cuz they're like, look like this looks to us like we would be taking on more risk and we don't need to do that. We're a successful isp. What we're doing works. And sure it would be nice if we could expand our services rapidly to a lot more people throughout Santa Cruz, but eh, we're, we're fine doing the way we are.
And I don't want to be missing out on those ISPs. I feel like in many ways those ISPs are the ones we wanna figure out how to get them to expand. And I worry that these rules will make it so that just charter and the companies like starlink and others where it'll be extremely high cost as design designated by the states will be more attractive rather than cooperatives and the local entities. And so that's what it comes down to. Cause I feel like you have an attitude that I've heard before, which is sort of like, we're setting a high bar. This is really important and I feel like it might be that that high bar is actually leading us to like lower performing operators because they can put teams together that will figure out how to manage these processes.
Heather Mills (18:57):
I heard two things there. Mm-hmm. <affirmative>, I heard you say
Christopher Mitchell (18:59):
A lot of
Heather Mills (19:00):
<laugh>. I heard you say it's okay to have less than stellar if you will infrastructure if it allows for, you know, more entry. Is that basically
Christopher Mitchell (19:13):
What you're saying? No, I think I was just, I was sort of getting a little bit off point. <laugh> my point is that my point is that states are gonna determine where the areas are extremely high cost and we're gonna have even more ISPs competing there. And like Starling's gonna be great at like, you know, a lot of, a lot of this stuff, I think in order to be competitive. Sure. and they're not gonna have to worry about climate resiliency <laugh>, which is a major benefit for them. In fact, that's one of the reasons I love loyal Herberts.
Heather Mills (19:36):
Actually they might, because there's a question of what happens when, if someone loses their, their equipment on the, the receiving end mm-hmm. <affirmative>. So how do they, how are they planning to fix that and are they going to make the user pay for that mm-hmm. <affirmative> or is that an insurance thing? Mm-hmm. <affirmative>, those are like, what, four or $500 pieces?
Christopher Mitchell (19:54):
They charge like $550, but it's like a thousand dollars in manufacturer. So that's
Heather Mills (19:57):
What I think where the, that's in my mind where the discussion would be if they're mm-hmm. IMP applying for those sorts of things. And in regards to climate resilience mm-hmm. <affirmative> planning. But let me ask them more. Let mean let me, let me distill my wandering down. Sure. I'm afraid that even as we try to do due diligence, it would be better if you just let me pick the ISPs that were the best to get the money. I
Christopher Mitchell (20:19):
Heather Mills (20:20):
I think the process is designed to be rigorous on purpose. it's about being good stewards of our tax dollars, everybody's tax dollars. Mm-hmm. <affirmative> not just those who want something or those who don't want something. I understand your point of view and I, I, I absolutely get where you're coming from with that question mm-hmm. <affirmative>. but I don't, I don't know that that it will shake out like that at all. I think that this process is designed to be rigorous on purpose. Mm-hmm. <affirmative> and each state will have their own idea about how to implement this as well.
Christopher Mitchell (20:49):
So if we weren't gonna lose our clean tag, I would suggest that you're about to quote the Big Lebowski with, you're not wrong in Walter <laugh>, you're just <laugh>.
Heather Mills (20:56):
It is the rug that ties the room together.
Christopher Mitchell (20:58):
<laugh>. So let's talk a little bit about the fun stuff that, that you've seen and interesting projects that you've worked on. let me start by just asking you about states. you've worked in, I'm sure you've, in the process of working with a few states, you've observed a ton of states. Oh yeah. What are some of the best things you've seen states doing in order to improve broadband? Not necessarily just related to all this federal money, but what are some of the best practices you've seen in states for people who aren't here in the room watching? I didn't give Heather any warning about this deep question. So she's staring off into the middle distance pondering right now. <laugh>,
Heather Mills (21:31):
<laugh>. Can you be more specific mm-hmm.
Christopher Mitchell (21:36):
<affirmative> in various, so from an infrastructure point of view, like I felt like Minnesota was a real leader eight years ago and and since then has really lost its footing. And what are some of the best practices that you're seeing from states to like, make sure that they're wisely spending infrastructure dollars, getting it out there in these high cost areas.
Heather Mills (21:54):
They're trying to hire the right people. and that's really challenging right now because, you know, everybody wants to hire a broadband specialist. Mm-hmm. <affirmative>.
Christopher Mitchell (22:02):
I just got an email asking me to promote some jobs. Oh, you
Heather Mills (22:04):
Really? That's great. <laugh>. So people who understand the industry, like really understand the industry are I would say mostly here, a few and far between, right? Mm-hmm. <affirmative>. and that for me is the, the first best step that that, that they could take and that they have been taking. And a number of states are really trying to find good qualified people. and that's not, that's not necessarily an easy like, political appointment or, you know, and what you, you are also seeing is the federal government hiring for the same reason. I think N T I A is got a, a very great plan to hire somebody for each state that will be like the liaison mm-hmm. <affirmative> that's challenging. That's 50 people from our industry, right. Working for the ntia doing good work, but it's, that means that there, that's 50 less people. Yeah.
Christopher Mitchell (22:57):
I can't name 50 people that like are immediately like the ones that you go to for this sort of work and
Heather Mills (23:01):
Like the size of broadband offices. Like I think this was on your panel the other day, like you guys were talking about like, most broadband offices have two people
Christopher Mitchell (23:07):
In, right? Yeah. Well, south office has three, maybe
Heather Mills (23:09):
Three <laugh>. Yeah. That's challenging. Mm-hmm. <affirmative>. So again, there's only so many people out there that understand really the mechanics of, of all of this and are able to navigate as well the political atmosphere that they're finding themselves in as well. That's a whole other level of challenge.
Christopher Mitchell (23:25):
If I had to guess right now, I bet half of the states are probably hiring their head broadband person in some sort of process right
Heather Mills (23:31):
Now. I think that's probably about right and it's gonna take them some time, and quite frankly, it should take them some time. Mm-hmm. <affirmative>, if you're, you know, if you're being rigorous, which most states are mm-hmm. <affirmative> in their hiring process then they're taking the time to do it. Well I should say one of the things that we didn't talk about was the, the issue that's not related to N T I A which is that the federal government is taxing these awards. But we, we just got some a note this morning for anyone who's listening to this show, talk to your senators because some senators are expressing surprise in shock when this is brought up by people who are not insiders that have been telling them for years. Yeah. and so there may be a movement in the Senate to fix that. And so talking to your senators about the absurdity of taxing these broadband grant awards is a, is a good practice. But this stuff reminds me then of of California, right? So California is paying a hundred percent of the infrastructure costs. They've been doing this for a while from their kf fund. And I've thought that that was not well advised, is how I would put it gently. on the other hand, I feel like when I hear people defending it, they're like, well, they can put a lot of restrictions in on, on the network and say you have to offer a $40 a month plan and things like that. Do you have any, do you have any like, immediate reaction to whether states should pay a hundred percent of the costs?
I don't, I will say to, to, to pivot back to the N T I A programs that are out there right now, the emphasis is on making sure that the applicants who are asking for money are putting in, I don't wanna say they're, they're fair share, but they're, you know, putting in money as well. This is
Christopher Mitchell (25:08):
Skin in the game. That's what I think in the game. I think that's the best
Heather Mills (25:11):
Practice they need to have skin in the game. And you know, with the Middle Mile program in particular, I want, I wanna say that they're looking to, you know, they wanna shovel-ready project and I think there's various levels of shovel-ready project, by the way. But they really wanna see projects that are well thought out, well planned and ready to get going just to make sure that they're getting as much bang for their buck as quickly as possible because we're running against a time clock now. Mm-hmm. <affirmative> time clock being the fccs maps <laugh>. because we know as soon as those are released and that, you know, that's not gonna be immediately mm-hmm. <affirmative>, but as soon as those are released, that that starts another time clock for the bead funding. That's the implementation piece of it. Right. So getting these middle mile projects underway as soon as possible mm-hmm. <affirmative> is only going to benefit the bead effort and the digital equity effort down the road.
Christopher Mitchell (25:56):
I feel like that phrase, when the FCC maps are released, <laugh> is like, is our generations when the Messiah returns <laugh> Sure. <laugh> next year in Jerusalem, like sort of <laugh>.
Heather Mills (26:07):
Christopher Mitchell (26:09):
you know, maybe, maybe when they, when that, when that happens. Yeah. <laugh>. so what, what other, so getting away from states to more like local projects, are there things that you've seen that just really inspire you and, and make you excited and think, I really wanna share this on a podcast with Chris Mitchell? Oh, yeah. <laugh>,
Heather Mills (26:27):
I think I mentioned to you the other day Scott County, Kentucky mm-hmm. <affirmative>. I'm really excited for the opportunity that they've, they created, I think we were, we began working with them in October of 2020 before we had any indication of, you know, ARPA funds and things like that mm-hmm. <affirmative> and you know, they were largely passed over in regards to Art Off awards. I think there were one or two places where there was an art off award there. I wanna say a northern bedroom community, if you will, of the, I'm gonna get it wrong, the Lexington area. It's not, not very far. and it's a really lovely place. I would love to like, have another entire life there. Mm-hmm. <affirmative> and just live in and around Georgetown, Kentucky. It's a great
Christopher Mitchell (27:11):
Big one. I'm gonna guess petting horses and things like that. Well, there's gotta be a few around. There's
Heather Mills (27:14):
Just a, all the people there are good people. I, okay. I can't, like, you can see it on my face, like I've got a big smile. I really love this place. Mm-hmm. <affirmative>. And I felt really lucky to work with the team there. judge Covington is one of the best human beings I think I've ever met.
Christopher Mitchell (27:32):
And judge being the Kentucky term for county administrator type person,
Heather Mills (27:35):
Judge executive is what they call that. Yeah. Mm-hmm. <affirmative>. and, and so he, he had a, a goal to find a way to get broadband ubiquitously throughout the county because it was, is largely unserved mm-hmm. <affirmative>. and so we looked at what the options were and we said, Hey, you know, you guys aren't interested in owning and operating the infrastructure. You're interested in a public-private partnership. We can explore what those options are with you. And so they, they issued an rfi, a request for information to see who was interested mm-hmm. <affirmative>. And it turned out there was a good amount of interest. and as such, they immediately turned around and said, let's, let's do this an RFP request for proposals and see where that gets us. And at that point we knew that the NT I a was gonna have the, the BIP program, the Broadband Infrastructure Pro program, that which was the, I think the one time there's like a billion dollars in that one. Right. I can't remember entirely.
Christopher Mitchell (28:30):
I was thinking, I thought that maybe that was was it the partnership one that was 300 million? Was that a different one?
Heather Mills (28:35):
That's a different one. Okay. I, I'm not sure anyway. Okay. I just know there was a lot of money. There
Christopher Mitchell (28:38):
Was money available, right. <laugh>,
Heather Mills (28:41):
It's so far in the past, I can't believe how long ago it was now. And so the goal was to find a partner and then the, the county was able to you know, the, the partner that they ch with, the partner that they chose, they had ARPA funds available to write the check, but the, the deal that they structured gave them time to figure out other options as well. And so they wanna be good stewards of their tax dollars. They wanted to be able to use those funds for other ARPA allowed things if possible. so we worked with the partner to put in a grant application. They were one of the few <laugh>, the 13, 13 or 14 winners of one of the BIPA grant awards. And they didn't ask for much mm-hmm. <affirmative>. But what was appealing, I think about that particular project was the partner that they chose the amount of money the partner was putting in you know, was basically like 85% of the project. So what we were looking for was the gap funding, if you will, that the county needed to put in. And then they won the BIP award. And I don't, I can't tell you, I think I, that day I was so happy for, for, for that <laugh>. and it, it has everything to do with the people and the team and the, the rigorous way in which they approached it.
Christopher Mitchell (29:50):
Well, that's what I wanted to jump in on for a second because if I am not mangling my stories, this is one where you did greater due diligence on and in preparing the RFP so that bidders would have a much better sense of what they were getting into so they'd be able to offer more accurate bids.
Heather Mills (30:07):
Absolutely. So one of the biggest barriers that we have found over the years to getting partners interested is helping them sharpen their pencils. One of the things that we did was we sent a team out into the county, they wrote up and down every road mm-hmm. <affirmative> and our outside plant team is very knowledgeable. They, they can, you know, eyeball what is there and what is not there and put that into gis and we provided the bidders with a, a copy of that. it was a KMZ or something, <laugh> file. And it had, you know, basic information in there. The feedback that we got from the bidders was that that was absolutely something that helped them understand. And at that point, the county knew what was there and wasn't there. Right. And that was really key to moving the ball down the field, if you will to getting this the, even the grant application pulled together in the way that it was, cuz we had numbers, we knew where there was service and wasn't service. and what, what level of service mm-hmm. <affirmative> so what type, if it was DSL or if it was underground and we knew it was underground, that sort of thing. So it was very helpful to them in getting that done. Yeah.
Christopher Mitchell (31:15):
And just for a ballpark figure, I'm gonna guess that, you know, if you sort of estimated a bid to not do that versus doing something that included that, it's probably a difference of tens of thousands of dollars. Like from the point of view of what they're paying a consultant and maybe maybe a hundred thousand, like no
Heather Mills (31:31):
<laugh> No, no, definitely not
Christopher Mitchell (31:32):
That much. So, so I just wanna get the sense that like, like this is one of those things where when you're putting together, when you're a city trying to find a consultant and you're like, oh, like maybe we could save 30 or $40,000 here. Like those tens of thousands of dollars if spent well, can result in
Heather Mills (31:46):
Christopher Mitchell (31:47):
Right. Millions of benefits just in terms of a better process and more rapid deployment and all that.
Heather Mills (31:53):
And just that's no guarantee of that. But it is certainly
Christopher Mitchell (31:56):
The Heather Mills says that you will definitely no
Heather Mills (31:58):
<laugh> <laugh> caveat
Christopher Mitchell (32:01):
This, but this is what's just,
Heather Mills (32:02):
By it, it is something that you, that you should be cognizant of is what are the ultimate benefits, what is, what is your ultimate goal. Mm-hmm. And if the goal is to be able to apply for grants that could garner the funding to do this mm-hmm. <affirmative>, then it might be worth it. But that's not my decision. That is the decision of the, the locality and it's, right. It's a discussion that they need to have,
Christopher Mitchell (32:25):
But they need to be informed on this.
Heather Mills (32:26):
Yeah. They need to be informed and they need to ask questions about like, what is the benefit of this mm-hmm. <affirmative> what exactly are they doing? Right. Why don't we already have this information? Sure. <laugh>, that sort of thing. and in some cases, you know, this sort of goes back to there's software out there that, that helps you document where your infrastructure is. Mm-hmm. <affirmative> and so prior to that kind of software being available, it was somebody's brain mm-hmm. <affirmative> somebody who may have recently retired Yes. Often often. And so they just don't know where that stuff is anymore. Mm-hmm. <affirmative>. and
Christopher Mitchell (32:55):
Not just for public entities, private entities, private entities is a common
Heather Mills (32:59):
Well, yeah. It's a very common problem. And so, you know, we're seeing less that problem less and less, but it's still, it's still something we're gonna have to deal with, especially for the more rural areas. Mm-hmm. <affirmative> that, you know, don't necessarily know what's there and what's not there. Yeah. For sure.
Christopher Mitchell (33:12):
Wonderful. Thank you Heather. Thank
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