States have to solicit feedback on two grant programs. First will be each state’s share of the $42.5 billion of BEAD broadband infrastructure grants. Second is the state’s portion of $1.44 billion in digital equity grants. Most states are soliciting feedback on the two grant programs at the same time, although this can be done separately. The listening sessions can be virtual, or the state can send folks out to talk to you live.
The federal rules that created the grants say that the states have to reach out to ‘all corners’ of the state to solicit feedback. I interpret that to mean the state must reach out to local government, non-profits, local broadband committees, and any other stakeholder groups that wants to talk to them. Most states are either in the process of these listening sessions or will be soon.
There will also be some additional chances to provide feedback on the grants and the grant process. The states will be submitting a proposal to the NTIA describing the process of awarding the grants, and there will be a comment period on these rules. The states will weigh in on the broadband mapping issue, and folks can also chime in on that topic.
If your community has something to say about broadband, this is the chance to be heard. A lot of communities are worried that the FCC maps don’t show them as needing broadband, and this is a chance to let the state know the state of broadband needs in your town or county. If you’ve been following my blog, you know there are a lot of policy issues surrounding the BEAD grants. The infrastructure grants seem to be heavily weighted toward large ISPs with deep pockets and not necessarily toward local ISPs that folks hope will serve them. This is a chance to ask state broadband offices to be flexible and consider small local ISPs in making awards. A lot of communities are creating public-private partnerships with ISPs, and these communities want the state to recognize these partnerships. A lot of cities and towns worry that they won’t see any of this grant funding.
Most states have at least some grasp of the broadband infrastructure issues, but I don’t think any of them understand the local issues in each community concerning digital equity issues. Communities differ widely in the degree to which digital equity issues come into play locally. Communities differ in the percentage of folks who can’t afford a broadband solution and want ISPs to offer an affordable option. Communities have differing ideas on how to provide digital literacy training and get computers into the homes that need them. These listening sessions are a chance to tell the story of your community and the solutions that you have in mind.
I strongly recommend that anybody that sponsors a listening session take the time first to organize the issues to be sure to make all of the needed points. It would be too easy to turn one of these sessions into a list of complaints about current broadband instead of a structured plea for broadband solutions. States are required to respond to questions asked in these listening sessions and to forward the questions and responses to the NTIA. But that means that a community or organization needs to ask specific questions if you want a response.
The time to provide feedback will not be open for long, so if your community or group wants to be heard, you should contact your state broadband office soon.