One of the aspects of the $42.5 billion BEAD program that many communities might have overlooked is that communities can request grants to bring fast broadband or improve existing broadband to anchor institutions.
Section I.C.f. of the BEAD Notice of Funding Opportunity (NOFO) defines a community anchor institution as an entity such as a school, library, health clinic, health center, hospital or other medical provider, public safety entity, institution of higher education, public housing organization, or community support organization that facilitates greater use of broadband service by vulnerable populations, including, but not limited to, low-income individuals, unemployed individuals, children, the incarcerated, and aged individuals. An Eligible Entity (the State Broadband Office) may propose to NTIA that additional types of institutions should qualify as CAIs within the entity’s territory.
The first thing to note is that this expands the definition of anchor institution beyond the traditional list by adding organizations that facilitate the use of broadband by vulnerable populations. This means that the grants can be used to bring better broadband to organizations that want to help low-income individuals or others who need better broadband. This is an interesting concept that makes it possible to build broadband facilities to the offices of non-profits or perhaps a computer training center. My interpretation of the BEAD rules is that the grant funding could also be used to construct a training center and buy the needed computers.
This is one of the more interesting sections of the BEAD program because it doesn’t seem to be restricted to only anchor institutions that can’t already buy broadband with 100/20 Mbps speeds. We’ll have to see how states interpret the rules, but it seems like funding could be used to upgrade speeds to anchor institutions. It might also be possible to use this funding to add anchor institutions to a fiber network that would eliminate the need for having to buy commercial broadband – much like school systems often build private networks.
I must be honest in that I historically disliked grant programs that were built only for anchor institutions. The 2009 BIP and BTOP grants were used to build many middle-mile fiber routes across the country. Those grants required grant winners to drop off of the middle-mile routes to serve any anchor institutions in rural areas. This meant that fiber was often built into small rural towns to serve only the city hall and the library and nothing else. Certainly, these anchor institutions needed broadband, but so did all of the residents and businesses in these towns. In actual practice, delivering broadband to only anchor institutions made it harder to justify a rural broadband build to reach everybody else since the anchor institutions were no longer potential customers.
I think the BEAD grants are different. The BEAD grants are aimed at building broadband across large rural areas and will be required to serve everybody in those areas, including anchor institutions. I interpret the anchor institution language to be aimed at towns and cities and not rural areas.
Larger towns and cities got broadband networks constructed to serve anchor institutions in the 1970s by cable companies that provided broadband as a condition for granting a cable franchise. However, these networks are either no longer free or have been discontinued as cable companies have lost nearly twenty million customers in just the last few years. The BEAD grants hold out the possibility for a community to construct a new government network to replace the old networks that were once provided by the cable companies – and to a large universe of eligible anchor institutions.
I would hope that cities will not repeat the sins of BTOP and build a broadband network in such a way as to ignore the rest of the community. For example, another provision of BEAD allows funding to be used to bring better broadband to low-income apartment buildings or complexes, and I hope any urban networks will address multiple needs.
This is one of the pieces of BEAD funding that I don’t think is automatic. It’s up to states to put some muscle behind this possibility if it wants to see these kinds of grant awards. I have no doubt that the large ISPs are going to hate this provision since it could fund fiber networks in urban areas. And I am certain that some states will follow the lead of the big ISPs and make it hard to qualify for this kind of grant.
However, the BEAD rules allow for these kinds of projects, and communities should assess their broadband needs for anchor institutions and begin the process of lobbying the State broadband offices to make such grants available. While the big ISPs might hate this idea, there is no reason that this kind of grant can be used to create a public-private partnership with a big ISP or somebody else. I think cities are going to have to be creative to win and implement these grants – but it is well worth the effort.