The Challenge of State Broadband Plans

One of the most interesting aspects of the upcoming BEAD (Broadband Equity, Access, and Deployment) grants is that the money is going to flow through the states. In many of the states I’ve been following, it looks like the money will be distributed by passing the money through existing state broadband grant programs.

States with existing broadband grant programs are going to find that some aspects of the BEAD grants will differ from the current state grant rules. A good example is in the definition of unserved and underserved – the BEAD definition is going to be different than the definitions used in almost every existing state grant program. Since the federal legislation that created the BEAD grants rules is so specific, there will be numerous ways that the BEAD grant will differ from a state grant program.

The obvious solution is for states to adopt the federal rules. There is certainly a huge amount of incentive for states to make this work since every state will get at least $100 million while most will get much more. The $42.5 billion in funding averages out to $850 million per state.

Unfortunately, it’s not automatic that states can or will accept the federal grant rules since the grant rules in many states were prescribed by the state legislatures. In such cases, the legislatures will have to have to take steps to modify the state grant rules. Anybody who has ever worked with a legislature on broadband issues knows that this won’t always be a cakewalk. The specific rules baked into existing state broadband grants are often the results of difficult wrangling and negotiations in the legislatures.

The politics of broadband varies widely from state to state. There are states where the broadband grant rules are heavily influenced by the large incumbents, while other state grant rules are more consumer-oriented. I imagine there are state legislators who are going to bristle at the idea of having to swallow grant rules handed down by the federal government.

Add to this the fact that states have a time clock running. The NTIA will publish final rules for the state to follow by May 16, and then states will have a window to file state plans. That timeline means that legislatures need to agree with changes in grant programs before a state can file a BEAD broadband plan. For some legislatures, this will feel like acting at the speed of light. I’m positive that there will be states where accepting the revised grant rules will be heavily debated.

Perhaps a bigger challenge comes from the states without a formal broadband grant office. These states must first decide who in the state is going to tackle writing the state plan to obtain the grant funding, and then it’s still likely that many of these states will still need the legislature to act. For a state without any staff dedicated to the broadband issue, the process of getting a state plan filed with the NTIA sounds like a serious administrative challenge.

The process doesn’t end when a state files a broadband plan with the NTIA, since the NTIA will have to approve each plan. It’s going to get interesting if the NTIA disagrees with the provisions of a state plan. It’s not inconceivable that a state legislature might have to get involved a second time if a filed state plan has to be modified.

It’s not unusual for the states and the federal government to wrangle over the details of federal spending programs. There are numerous examples of states turning down huge amounts of federal money when states didn’t like the rules attached to the funding.

Because of the prominence of the rural broadband issue in most states, it’s hard to think states won’t do whatever is needed to get the BEAD grant funding. But the state legislative process is not always logical, and there will likely be a few states where legislative intransigence could put the grant money at risk.

I strongly urge ISPs and local governments in every state to take the time to find out what your state is doing. Many states are currently inviting comments and involvement in the creation of the state broadband plan for these grants. This is the time to make sure your state is doing this the right way.

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