As you might expect, the lobbying is becoming hot and heavy to position ISPs to win the $42.5 billion of Broadband Equity, Access, and Deployment (BEAD) grants that will likely start being awarded in 2023. This is one of the most interesting lobbying challenges I’ve ever seen because there is no one central place that will be awarding these grants.
Congress gave the responsibility for these grants to the NTIA, but the money is going to flow from them to the states. There seems to be a lot of lobbying happening with state legislators, but even that might not be very effective. States must file broadband grant plans that largely follow the rules established by Congress as interpreted by the NTIA. States will have some leeway on how to award grants, but states will still have to follow the basic NTIA rules.
I fully expect many states will have bias. This could mean favoring grants for the large incumbents or favoring grants for cooperatives or municipalities. But even states with a bias will have a hard time turning down solid grant applications that includes a significant amount of matching funding from a local government. This raises the big question of who should be lobbied – the NTIA, state legislators, or individual communities? From what I’m seeing, the answer seems to be all of the above.
We’re starting to see the lobbying position of some of the major industry players. Trade associations have filed comments with the NTIA outlining how they think grants should work. Open letters are being sent to legislators, and to state and federal agencies arguing for various positions. Happening more quietly is one-on-one meetings with local and state government officials. Following are a few of the lobbying positions that I’m starting to regularly see.
The Wireless Internet Service Provider Association (WISPA) represents ISPs using wireless technologies to reach customers. The gist of the WISPA comments is that BEAD funding should not be used to overbuild broadband in any area where an ISP is already delivering broadband of at least 100/20 Mbps service. This position is making the argument that grants should not be used to overbuild any technology, including wireless broadband, that is delivering adequate speeds. It’s easy to understand this position since there has been a lot of discussion about basing grant eligibility on the fastest landline broadband options available today and ignoring the speeds of existing wireless broadband.
The NTCA – The Rural Broadband Association represents independent telephone companies. Its filed comments voice a similar concern against overbuilding but are not quite as rigidly opposed to some overbuilding. NTCA said it is opposed to providing funds to overbuild areas that already have technologies capable of 100/20 Mbps. However, the association said it is open to the idea of combining funding from the BEAD grants to supplement existing federal or state grants if the extra grant funding will boost the speeds of existing technologies to 100/100 Mbps or gigabit speeds. This concept is being referred to as the ‘layering of grants’ to describe combining federal, state, and local grants.
USTelecom, the lobbying arm for the big telcos recently issued a letter to everybody in DC with its thoughts on the best way to administer the grants. They ask to rescind any grant rules that favor municipalities, cooperatives, or non-profits. They want money to go to communities only through partnerships with ISPs. They want past experience as an ISP to be the most important factor in judging who can be funded. This is clearly a wish list that would blatantly slant the money towards the big ISPs.
The Fiber Broadband Association (FBA) represents ISPs that build gigabit fiber networks. The association argues that fiber is the ultimate broadband technology and that federal grant money should not be used to fund any technology that does not create a long-term benefit to a community. This argument is best summarized by saying that grants should only be used to support technologies that are future-proof.
Interestingly, I’m not hearing any lobbying coming directly from the big cable companies – and that makes sense. For example, Charter is clearly chasing grant money across the country and is promising to build fiber if awarded grant funding. But Charter can’t be publicly talking about how fiber is a future-proofed technology when it owns huge hybrid fiber/coaxial networks.
I think the big ISPs also understand the nuances of the BEAD grants the best. I’m starting to see the big ISPs show up in local communities asking to create partnerships. There is not a lot to be gained by Charter of AT&T lobbying the NTIA or state grant offices to get the policies they want, although I’m sure they are doing so quietly. The best way to win the BEAD grants is to go arm-in-arm with a local community partner to ask for the funding.