It’s been over a year since the BEAD grant program was announced. While there has been a lot of activity on BEAD, there is still a long way to go before this grant money is used to build new broadband infrastructure. Most of the delay is due to the incredible complexity of the BEAD grant rules.
I work with a lot of different state broadband grant programs, and I can’t help but notice the tremendous difference in the complexity of the process between state and BEAD grants. The priority for state grant programs is usually to quickly get the money out the door and spent on infrastructure. State legislators that approve grant funding want to see construction started no later than the year after the grant award, and hopefully sooner. State grant offices are generally given instructions to identify worthwhile projects and get the money approved and quickly into the hands of the ISPs to build networks.
The differences between state grants and BEAD are stunning. I have one client that won a $10 million state grant based on a simple grant application of less than 20 pages. The grant reviewers asked a few follow-up questions, but the whole process was relatively easy. The grant office was relying on the challenge process by ISPs to identify grants that were asking to overbuild areas that already have broadband. The challenge process seemed to work – a number of the grants filed in this particular program were successfully challenged. But the bottom line is that the funding was made available to start construction in less than a year from the date when the grant office originally solicited grant applications.
Why are the BEAD grants so complicated? It starts with Congress, and a lot of the complexity is directly specified in the IIJA legislation that created the grants. My pet theory is that the complexity was introduced by lobbyists of the large ISPs that wanted to make the grants unfriendly to everybody other than big ISPs with the resources to tackle the complex rules. It’s unfathomable to me that congressional staffers would have invented these complex rules on their own. I knew on my first reading of the IIJA legislation that the grants favor big companies over small ones.
In the legislation, Congress decided to give the administration of the grants to the NTIA. The NTIA had a major decision to make on day one. The agency could have taken the approach of smoothing out the congressional language to make it as easy as possible for ISPs seeking the funding. The NTIA had political cover to take a light-touch approach since the legislation stressed the importance of quick action to solve the rural broadband crisis. The White House has also been urging federal agencies to speed up the process of turning IIJA funding into infrastructure projects.
Unfortunately, the NTIA didn’t take this approach. It looks like the agency did just the opposite – the agency embellished and strengthened the congressional language and made it even more complex to file for the grants.
I don’t think the NTIA had any agenda to make the grant more complicated. It’s impossible to think the agency had early discussions about how to make it harder to use the grant funding. But the agency did have an overriding desire to do these grants the right way. The general industry consensus is that the grants were given to the NTIA instead of the FCC because of the terribly botched RDOF subsidy program. It would be hard to design a federal broadband program that would have been more poorly handled than RDOF (except perhaps for CAF II, which also was done by the FCC).
I think BEAD became more complex, one topic at a time. I think folks at NTIA looked at each congressionally mandated rule and asked how they could make sure that no money went to an unqualified ISP. Instead of softening grant requirements, I think the NTIA staff instead asked how they could be positive that no unworthy ISPs sneak through BEAD process – something that clearly happened in the FCC’s RDOF process. The final NTIA BEAD rules are not a manual on how to get grant money spent efficiently – but a manual on how to make sure that only qualified ISPs win the funding.
That doesn’t sound like a bad goal. Some of the ISPs that won the RDOF funding were spectacularly unqualified – either financially, managerially, or technically. But as each of the many BEAD rules was made as safe as possible, the collective combination of all of the BEAD rules being made super-safe creates major hurdles for ISPs. Almost every ISP I know is going to have a problem with at least a few of the rules – and I think many qualified ISPs are going pass on the BEAD grants. There is something wrong with a grant program that has hundred-year-old telephone companies wondering if they can qualify for the grants.
There is still a chance for State broadband offices to smooth out the worst of the BEAD rules. A State broadband office can push back against the NTIA BEAD rules that make it too hard for ISPs to get funded. The NTIA can’t excuse any specific mandate that was created by Congress – but the NTIA can relax and compromise on its interpretation of these rules.
The big challenge facing State grant offices is how hard they are willing to push back against the NTIA. Every State is under pressure to finally get the grant process underway, and any challenge will likely add time before funding is available. Every State broadband office already knows the ISPs it would like to see win the funding – those ISPs that will be conscientious in operating the network after its built. State broadband offices need to listen and react to the concerns that these ISPs have about the grant process – because if they don’t, many of the best ISPs are going to take a pass on the grants.