It’s not hard to make a list of things to dislike about BEAD or any other big-dollar federal program. As anybody who reads this blog knows, I have a laundry list of things I wish BEAD had done differently. Today’s blog looks at a report from the U.S. Senate Committee on Commerce authored by Senator Ted Cruz that highlights some of the problems and issues of the BEAD grant program. It’s interesting to see the issues with BEAD run through a political filter. This is not the first critique of BEAD from Congress, and various groups of Senators have sent letters with criticisms or suggestions to the NTIA.
The first criticism of BEAD in the report is that the NTIA BEAD allocation gives too much funding to places that have good broadband and don’t need the money – like Washington DC and Delaware. The report blames this on the Biden administration, but the allocation of the funding to States was specified in the IIJA legislation. For example, the legislation mandated that each state gets at least $100 million. I think most people would agree with the report that it’s a waste to give money to states that don’t need it, but the blame for this goes squarely to the folks in Congress who wrote the legislation. These are the same folks that created one of my big pet peeves – that the funding must be allocated using the FCC broadband maps.
The next big criticism is that the BEAD allocations did not account for other federal money being spent elsewhere for broadband. This criticism is totally accurate. I think it’s ludicrous that the FCC announced a new round of ACAM funding only a few weeks after the BEAD dollars were allocated. My guess is that the FCC did this on purpose to show that the agency is still relevant in the broadband deployment world. I think the FCC is still stinging from having the BEAD program given to the NTIA and is flexing its broadband muscles. The White House directed the FCC, NTIA, and the RUS to coordinate broadband issues, but obviously that directive is being ignored.
The FCC map used to allocate BEAD dollars was also not kept current for the many state and local grants being made using ARPA or general funds from states. It would have been relatively easy to require states and localities to tell the FCC when broadband grants were awarded.
The next criticism in the document comes in two parts. First, it says that the Biden administration bias in favor of fiber is going to means that there isn’t enough money to go around and that some homes won’t get broadband. The NTIA has clearly stated that it prefers fiber when the numbers make sense. But realistically, this is left up to the States. There are a number of states that have said they will fund wireless as needed to make sure the grant funding stretches far enough. While the NTIA has a stated preference for fiber, it also balances that off with a mandate to States to make sure that all unserved locations get broadband. This will likely result in a big tightrope walk for States, but the mandate to serve everybody is clearly a higher priority than building all fiber.
The second half of this complaint is that BEAD will be used to bring broadband to mansions, beachfront resort communities, and mountain vacation homes – and the report includes examples of a few such locations. This complaint is just silly. The legislation says that every place in the country that is classified as unserved or underserved should get better broadband. By definition, BEAD will cover some of the kinds of locations the report points out, but the vast majority of BEAD funding will go to places like where I live in Appalachia, that are both poor and have no good broadband. This same complaint was lodged against the RDOF program, because any big list of unserved locations is going to include some places owned by the wealthy. If this was a real concern, Congress could have excluded such locations in the legislation, but it didn’t. The NTIA has no legal authority to say that such places can’t be served with the grants – and frankly, these places need broadband like everybody else. Lots of States are struggling about what to do about places like vacation cabins – but if they are shown as unserved on the FCC map, they probably have to be served.
The report doesn’t mention my number one complaint about BEAD, that the grant rules say that anybody can apply for a grant – but the rules clearly favor giant ISPs over smaller ISPs, municipalities, and everybody else. I would not expect this issue to be highlighted in a report from Congress since the biggest ISPs are generous donators to elected officials. But to be fair, the report also doesn’t recommend giving all of the money to the big telcos and cable companies that want to build fiber – if anything, the report is somewhat biased towards wireless broadband.