A Disturbing Trend for Broadband Deployment | Citizens Against Government Waste

A Disturbing Trend for Broadband Deployment

The WasteWatcher

There is a very disturbing trend for broadband deployment dollars happening across the federal government’s plethora of broadband programs.  While agencies claim their programs are intended to help competition, they are limiting their funds to a single technology, regardless of how well or poorly suited it would be in various regions of the country. 

The clearest example of prioritization of a single technology is in the Broadband Equity and Access, and Deployment (BEAD) program, which received $42.5 billion in the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act (IIJA).   The BEAD Notice of Funding Opportunity (NOFO) issued on May 13, 2022, by the National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA) was so problematic that 11 of the 13 Republican members of the Senate Commerce, Science, and Transportation Committee sent a letter on April 23, 2023, asking the agency to “revise or issue a new NOFO for the BEAD program.”  Among the issues listed as being “inconsistent with NTIA’s statutory authority” in the IIJA was the prioritization of fiber technology over all other viable technologies despite the technology neutral provisions of the IIJA.

On June 16, 2023, NTIA announced that it had awarded $930 million for middle-mile broadband funding to 35 projects across 350 counties in 35 states, including Alaska, California, Kansas, Michigan, Nevada, New Mexico, and Puerto Rico.  This was shortly followed on June 26, 2023 by the state allocations for the $42.45 billion in BEAD funding.

The BEAD funding, along with the hundreds of billions of dollars that were made available in the CARES Act, ARPA, and the Consolidated Appropriations Act of 2021, should be more than enough to deploy broadband to every single household in America that wishes to be connected to the internet.  But setting a preference for a single technology, like fiber-to-the-home, rather than considering the best options to quickly deploy broadband based on the locality, will fail to achieve that objective. 

According to a study by Tarana Wireless, a fixed wireless provider, the one-size-fits-all approach for BEAD funding could “cost upwards of $200 billion.”  The NTIA guidance is insufficient to provision broadband to areas where it is not feasible or difficult and time consuming to deploy, often adding years to process to obtain permits and installing fiber in the communities.  For regions of the country where residents live in remote areas, fiber may not be a valid solution at all.

On May 11, 2023, Timothy Chavez, the technology director for Cuba Independent School District in Cuba, New Mexico testified before the Senate Commerce, Science, and Transportation Subcommittee on Communications, Media and Broadband that during the pandemic the school district needed to quickly get its students access to the internet.  Lacking funds and infrastructure, the school turned to Starlink, a satellite broadband provider, by installing equipment on the ground and on rooftops in areas where local livestock could otherwise damage the equipment.  Mr. Chavez’s testimony cited examples of students lacking electricity and sewage systems, making it challenging to deploy broadband to their residences, and impossible to use fiber-to-the-home. 

This demonstrates the importance of providing the best solution for each area of the country based on what works, not what is mandated regardless of need.  The school district sought the technology solution that best met the needs of the local community, and not what many inside the Washington beltway would like to mandate.  Mr. Chavez stated that “With this technology, our students are now part of a global, interconnected and digitally-literate society.  They are connected socially, emotionally, and in the future financially as we close the digital divide and open up opportunities here at home and across the world to our students.”

Citizens Against Government Waste has frequently expressed serious concerns over BEAD funding, as well as broadband funding across the federal government, noting that it should be done in a technology and vendor neutral manner.  There are many technology solutions that can provision high speed broadband to communities, including cable, fiber, wireless fixed broadband, wireless mobile broadband, satellite, and leveraging TV white space spectrum which has benefits for not only connecting homes, but enhancing precision agriculture and manufacturing across the country. 

Unfortunately, because of the preponderance of weight given by NTIA in its faulty guidance for one technology over all others, areas of the country that cannot be connected through that technology will be unable to use the federal funding available to deployment broadband because the state broadband offices are using the federal guidance (which is not mandatory) to inform their decision-making process.  NTIA must allow states and local government the ability to use federal funding for the technology that is best suited for their region of the country.  Fiber is not the only way to provide high speed broadband and forcing that technology or any other single solution with hundreds of billions of dollars at stake will not only be wasteful but also continue to keep many households on the wrong side of the digital divide.