One of the more interesting requirements of the BEAD grant process is that States must reach out to communities and stakeholders to make sure that everybody gets a voice in setting the state grant rules. This is something that communities of all kinds should be participating in.
It’s easy to think of the $42.5 billion BEAD grants as only for rural broadband. But the grant money can be used for a lot more purposes, such as bringing broadband to anchor institutions, bringing broadband to apartment buildings in low-income neighborhoods, funding broadband devices, training and workforce development, and for digital equity programs. This means there are a lot more opportunities for funding than just last-mile broadband, and any community interested in any of those areas should make sure that your State hears from you.
There is always a danger that states will merely give lip service to the local coordination process in order to check off a box at the NTIA. It’s up to communities and stakeholders to make it more than that.
The NTIA rules require states to reach out to the public and key stakeholders. The State must reach into all geographic corners. The NTIA rules require ‘meaningful’ engagement and dialog, whatever that means. States must utilize multiple awareness and participation mechanisms as part of the outreach. States are specifically tasked with reaching out to unserved and underserved communities, including underrepresented and marginalized groups. States are also required to document the outreach process.
I expect that outreach is going to happen in several ways. States will certainly announce in various ways that they want to hear from everybody in the state about the grants. States will likely request both written comments on its plans while also meeting with stakeholder groups. States might establish surveys to hear directly from the public. If a State fully follows the NTIA guidelines, it will also reach out somehow to unserved and marginalized stakeholders.
If a community wants to have any meaningful interaction with the State broadband folks, it must have a clear message of the issues that are most important. That makes it vital that local communities start holding conversations about what they hope to see out of the grant process.
Feedback from communities and stakeholders could cover anything having to do with the BEAD grants. If a County government believes the State won’t allow grants for government entities, this is the place to lodge a protest. If a city wants to make sure that low-income neighborhoods are not forgotten, this is the forum to give that voice. If a community is worried that the FCC mapping or unresolved RDOF grants will leave them behind, this is the forum to be heard.
In all cases, a community ought to clearly state what it wants to see out of the grants. Are there grant rules that must be more clearly spelled out in the State broadband proposal to the NTIA? Are there specific rules that the state should adopt, such as in important steps like how to handle challenges to the FCC maps? Are there rules the State is considering that a community finds unacceptable?
I know the nuances of the BEAD grants are probably hard for local communities and small stakeholders to understand. It’s hard to know if this is on purpose, but a lot of the complexity comes directly out of the legislation that enabled the grants – but the NTIA has layered on additional complexity. With that said, if a community doesn’t speak up during this process, you might have lost the chance to influence the way your state will administer the BEAD grants. It will be easy for states to concentrate on last-mile broadband and ignore the other many ways this money can be used – especially if they don’t hear from the public.