The Challenges for Broadband Grant Offices

I read an article recently in LightReading that discusses the efforts by the NTIA and the States to hire the people needed to administer the upcoming BEAD grant program. The article cites Commerce Secretary Gina Raimondo telling a Senate subcommittee that NTIA needs to hire 100 staff to administer the BEAD grants. Many states are starting from scratch to assemble a broadband office, and even states that have such a group are staffing up for the big crunch coming with the effort to award and administer billions of dollars of grants.

People might wonder why so many people are needed for the effort. I think that being in charge of a state broadband grant office has to be one of the toughest gigs in the country right now. The main purpose of today’s blog is to give folks an idea of the huge challenges facing each state broadband office over the next few years.

One of the first things each state will have to do is to develop a detailed broadband plan that describes how the BEAD grant program will work. The BEAD grant rules are complex. I have forty years of regulatory experience, and I see some new subtlety in the grant rules every time I read them. States somehow need to understand all of these subtleties and cobble together a state broadband grant plan that meets all of the requirements.

Each state grant office is required by the Congressional rules to reach into every niche and corner of the state to get input from constituents about what should be included in the state broadband plan. Anybody who has ever done that kind of outreach knows it’s hard – everybody in the state is going to want to be heard, even though most stakeholders will not understand the nuances of what the grants can and cannot accomplish. The demand for outreach meetings will require more hours than is available to hold meetings.

And then there is the politics. In some cases, the state legislatures have gotten involved and proposed laws that would modify or interfere with the grant process. But even when that isn’t the case, a broadband office is going to hear from every federal, state, and local politician who wants to make sure their constituency is taken care of. In many states, the governor’s office is going to have a heavy hand in the grant process.

At some point, the preliminary planning work will be done, a grant program will be put in place, and communities and ISPs will begin filing grant requests. The states will have a giant challenge of reviewing the grant requests. Most of the folks reviewing the grants will be relatively new to the broadband industry and will not find it easy to judge ISP business plans. Reviewing grants isn’t easy, even for people with many years of broadband experience. The grant review process has been made particularly complex by the NTIA rules that request a huge amount of input from a grant filer. It’s going to be hard for a grant reviewer to identify the half dozen most important facts in each grant request amongst the answers to hundreds of questions.

One of the biggest challenges of reviewing and choosing grant winners is that there are so many different uses for the funds – broadband last mile, anchor institutions, low-income apartments and neighborhoods, and various digital divide uses. States will somehow have to decide how to judge and balance grant awards between these various areas.

After awarding grants, the state broadband office will become the agency that will pay out grant funds. Grant funds are dispersed based upon real invoices, and a grant office will have to make the big pivot from reviewing grants to administering the funds and deciding if the submitted invoices match the intentions of an awarded grant. This is not an easy transition since the skill set for reviewing grant requests is different than the process of reviewing and verifying invoices.

After the grants are awarded, the grant offices will also require detailed status updates from each grant recipient, along with the obligation to somehow consolidate those updates into a report from each state to the NTIA. That’s a lot of paper to process every six months.

I wrote this blog because I’m not sure that many people in the industry appreciate the huge effort that will have to take place at the state grant offices behind the scenes. All of this workload comes with a shot clock ticking at all times and pre-determined deadlines that must be met. It’s hard to imagine that working in a state broadband office will be anything short of chaotic for the next four or five years.

I hope that industry folks grasp the complexity of the undertaking and are especially nice and understanding to the folks in the broadband grant offices – they are going to need it.

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