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Blueprints for BEAD: Stakeholders May Use Rebuttal Power to Prevent New Errors in BEAD Maps

Blueprints for BEAD is a series of short notes and analysis on nuances of BEAD that might otherwise get lost in the volume of material published on this federal funding program. Click the “Blueprints for BEAD” tag at the bottom of this story for other posts.
 

By mid June, we will have blown past the halfway mark in the BEAD challenge process - with more than thirty states having completed their “challenge windows” and another handful set to close imminently. But the “challenge window” is only part of the overall challenge process, and there are reasons for communities to stay engaged with the process even after that window closes. Communities - don’t sleep on the rebuttal window!

Where We Sit Today

Each state must conduct a challenge process prior to opening up BEAD grants to verify that the data on the National Broadband Map is accurate. That process will have three stages: the challenge window, the rebuttal window, and the determination window. During the challenge window, eligible challengers (local and Tribal governments, nonprofits, and ISPs) can present evidence that locations are incorrectly categorized as served, underserved, or served. According to the NTIA’s Challenge Process Policy Notice, those same eligible entities can participate in the rebuttal window, where they supply evidence refuting a challenge that was made by someone else. After both of these periods are over, the state weighs all of the evidence and makes a final determination (determination window). 

Why might this rebuttal period be important for communities? In short, not all challenges are created equally. While we might primarily think of challenges that make the map more accurate, some challenges could, in fact, make the map less accurate. Some ISPs might make questionable challenges about the level of service they can or will provide.

Tribes Likely Have to Challenge RDOF And Other “Enforceable Commitments” on State BEAD Maps

As debate continues about the “collision course” between the Rural Digital Opportunity Fund (RDOF) and Broadband Equity, Access, and Deployment (BEAD) programs, it is worth highlighting the unique leverage Tribal nations have to resolve these concerns on Tribal lands as well as the challenges they may face in navigating the process.

Existing state and federal grant/loan programs are considered “enforceable commitments” under BEAD rules, making locations funded through those programs, including RDOF, ineligible for BEAD grants (unless those awards are declared to be in default). This rule prevents “duplication” of federal or state funding for broadband infrastructure build-outs.

The debate has emerged because some communities are concerned that RDOF-funded building has not yet begun and, in some cases, may never be built-out. In the meantime those locations remain ineligible for BEAD because of these enforceable commitments.

However, the rules about enforceable commitments and duplication are different on Tribal lands. When issuing its BEAD guidance, the National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA) determined that federal and state grant funding for buildout on Tribal lands – like RDOF – that do not carry Tribal Government Resolutions of consent are not considered to be enforceable commitments.

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Tribal RDOF awards

Without formal Tribal consent in the form of a legally binding agreement, which includes a Tribal Government Resolution, funding programs like RDOF should have no bearing on the BEAD eligibility of locations on Tribal lands. As long as they are not currently receiving service from a provider, these locations should remain BEAD-eligible.

USDA ReConnect Amps Up Broadband Funding to Tribal Nations

When a $25 million broadband funding award for the Colorado River Indian Tribe (CRIT) was announced in July 2023, CRIT Chairwoman Amelia Flores celebrated it as a “game changer.”

“Broadband access is essential,” Flores’s statement read, making “remote learning, telecommuting, conducting business, and simplifying staying connected” possible.

Coming amid a rolling series of announcements from the Tribal Broadband Connectivity Program – each lauding millions of dollars in broadband funding for Tribes – it would have been easy to file away CRIT’s award as another from that pathbreaking broadband funding program for Tribes.

But this was not the TBCP. Rather, CRIT was among a handful of Tribes that received substantial funding awards from another federal source that has recently stepped up their grantmaking to Tribes – the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) ReConnect Grant Program, administered by the department’s Rural Utilities Service (RUS).

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USDA ReConnect Awardees logo

CRIT’s award is a helpful reminder that TBCP is not the be-all-end-all of funding for Tribal broadband. With an award cycle now open, ReConnect offers powerful tools and incentives –  including dedicated Tribal funding, 100 percent grants, and consent for any new infrastructure on sovereign lands – for Tribes looking to expand or launch broadband service.

TBCP, ReConnect, and Federal Funding for Tribal Broadband Infrastructure

Caution Ahead: RDOF and BEAD Collision Course

The Rural Digital Opportunity Fund (RDOF) was supposed to drive affordable fiber into vast swaths of long-underserved parts of rural America. And while the FCC administered program accomplished some of that goal, a multitude of problems have plagued the program since its inception, putting both current and future broadband funding opportunities at risk.

The $20.4 billion RDOF program was created in 2019 by the Trump FCC as a way to shore up affordable broadband access in traditionally unserved rural U.S. markets.

The money was to be doled out via reverse auction in several phases, with winners chosen based on having the maximum impact for minimum projected cost.

During phase one of the program, the FCC stated that 180 bidders won $9.2 billion over 10 years to provide broadband to 5.2 million locations across 49 states and the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands.

But, according to ILSR data, roughly 34 percent of census blocks that won RDOF funding–more than $3 billion in awards – are now in default. All told, 287,322 census blocks were defaulted on by more than 121 providers as of December 2023.

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RDOF top 10 screenshot

The defaults are only one part of a larger problem: namely that many communities bogged down in RDOF program dysfunction may risk losing out on the historic amount of federal funding to build modern broadband networks (BEAD) made possible by the 2021 bipartisan infrastructure law.

One Big Giant Mess

‘Scrappy’ Island Munis Lead Charge For Affordable Broadband In Maine

Peppered by winding country roads and remote islands, Maine exemplifies the challenges in even deployment of affordable broadband. But thanks to tenacious island communities and forward-thinking state leadership, a growing roster of community-owned broadband networks are leading the charge toward affordable access in the Pine Tree State.

Peggy Schaffer, former executive director of the state of Maine's broadband mapping and expansion effort, ConnectMaine, has played a starring role in shoring up Maine’s broadband mapping data after years of federal dysfunction.

Schaffer’s well versed in the broad array of challenges faced by remote Maine communities, and says she’s long been impressed by the “scrappy” nature of Maine’s community-owned island deployments, which have faced down and overcome no limit of onerous challenges in an  ongoing quest to finally bridge the state’s long standing digital divide.

Maine is currently ranked 49th in the U.S. in terms of resident access to gigabit-capable broadband service. Like so much of the country, the state is heavily dominated by regional monopolies that failed to uniformly deliver affordable, next-generation broadband, despite decades of federal subsidies, regulatory favors, and tax breaks.

Now local Maine communities are taking matters into their own hands, beginning with long-neglected island residents no stranger to unique logistical challenges.

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Islesboro Maine

‘It’s A Story Of Perseverance’

Predictions for 2024 - Episode 585 of the Community Broadband Bits Podcast

The fading sound of holiday bells and soft stillness that comes with plunging temps can only mean one thing; it's January again, which means it's time to break out the crystal ball and have a conversation about the year to come. Joining Christopher in the recording booth are a slew of CBN staffers new and veteran to join in the collective task of putting words to feelings both foreboding and optimistic about the year to come.

Will we see the first BEAD-connected home this year? Will the Affordabel Connectivity Program get re-funded? How will the maps look in 11 more months, with slews of challenge data? How many new municipal ftth networks will we see founded in 2024? State preemption laws rolled back, or re-introduced? Tune in for answers to all these and more.

This show is 48 minutes long and can be played on this page or via Apple Podcasts or the tool of your choice using this feed.

Transcript below.

We want your feedback and suggestions for the show-please e-mail us or leave a comment below.

Listen to other episodes or view all episodes in our index. See other podcasts from the Institute for Local Self-Reliance.

Thanks to Arne Huseby for the music. The song is Warm Duck Shuffle and is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution (3.0) license.

The 2024 Prediction Show | Episode 87 of the Connect This! Show

Connect This

Join us Tuesday, January 16th at 2pm ET for the latest episode of the Connect This! Show. Co-hosts Christopher Mitchell (ILSR) and Travis Carter (USI Fiber) will be joined by regular guests Doug Dawson (CCG Consulting), Kim McKinley (UTOPIA Fiber), and special guest Roger Timmerman (Executive Director UTOPIA Fiber) to prognosticate all of the broadband things for 2024: will ACP get renewed? Which states will get BEAD right, and which are showing signs of cracking under the pressure? What did we see at CES that will impact the broadband market? Is the fiber market going to pause? Tune in for titillating discussion on these topics and many more.

Email us at broadband@communitynets.org with feedback and ideas for the show.

Subscribe to the show using this feed or find it on the Connect This! page, and watch on LinkedIn, on YouTube Live, on Facebook live, or below.

Remote video URL

BEAD’s Match Exemption for High-Cost Areas May Be Challenging for Tribal ISPs

After decades of failed broadband policy-making and incumbent provider neglect, many Tribal communities continue to lack affordable and reliable Internet connectivity. Limited access to capital for last-mile deployment on Tribal lands has been exacerbated by a vast “missing middle mile”  problem, and credible estimates put the costs of universal access on reservations at well over $10 billion.

Despite a historic investment in better Internet access from the federal government directly to Tribes, the problem is not even half solved. The first round of the Tribal Broadband Connectivity Program offered $2 billion in grants but received nearly $6 billion in requests from half of the 574 federally-recognized Tribes. With only $1 billion available in the final round of this program, an enormous funding gap remains.

Funding from the Broadband Equity, Access, and Deployment Program (BEAD) will have to be used strategically and collaboratively with Tribes to bridge this gap. The “high-cost area” match exemption could be an important tool to facilitate sustainable infrastructure deployment on Tribal lands, but it is not yet clear that states will make this exemption feasible.

Blue River Latest Colorado Town To Eye Community Broadband

Blue River, Colorado (est. pop. 882) is the latest Colorado municipality to explore building its own broadband network with an eye on affordable access. The town is part of a trend that’s only accelerated since the state eliminated industry-backed state level protections restricting community-owned broadband networks.

Just south of Breckenridge in the central part of the state, Blue River is nestled in one of the more rural parts of Summit County. Comcast (Xfinity) enjoys a broadband monopoly, resulting in spotty access, slow speeds, and high prices. Locals also routinely complain that cell phone service remains spotty in much of the mountainous area.  

In response, town leaders recently hired the consulting firm, NEO Connect, to explore the possibility of building a town-wide fiber network. According to a feasibility study presented to the Blue River Board of Trustees by Mayor Toby Babich, the construction of a fiber network serving every town resident will cost somewhere in the neighborhood of $13 million.

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Blue River Plaza

While that “may seem out of reach,” Babich recently told the board, “we believe with the right funding and partnership we can move forward with this project.”

The estimates for network construction range somewhere between $7 million to $24 million, depending on how much underground trenching work is required.

Old Data Woes Could Hinder Round Two of Tribal Broadband Connectivity Program

The Tribal Broadband Connectivity Program (TBCP) is in the midst of accepting applications for a second round of funding, with nearly $1 billion in grants available. A significant program with important limitations, TBCP has made some changes in round two – including one that could mean the resurgence of old barriers for Tribes.

TBCP launched in 2021 with a total $3 billion in allocations, an unprecedented federal investment in Tribal broadband. The TBCP also requires no minimum match from Tribal governments, easing a long-time barrier to grant participation.

Interest in the program’s first round of funding was pronounced. After more than 300 applications requesting nearly $6 billion, NTIA selected 226 projects for award, to the tune of $1.9 billion. At least 70 of these were “equitable distribution” awards – a system that guaranteed any of the 574 federally recognized tribes with a satisfactory application up to $500,000. All together, these grants expect to reach more than 170,000 Tribal households.