The NTIA reacted to the president’s speech by writing a blog talking about the use of the Buy America rules in the upcoming $42.5 billion BEAD grants. The blog states, “The president made clear that while Buy America has been the law of the land since 1933, too many administrations have found ways to skirt its requirements. We will not.”
The NTIA requested waivers from Buy America rules when administering past grant programs, including the recent $1 billion middle-mile grants. The USDA sought a 6-month waiver of these rules that applied to some earlier rounds of the ReConnect grants. But the NTIA has made it clear that it doesn’t see any need for a waiver to buy American fiber optic glass or cable. The NTIA says there should be sufficient time for manufacturers to re-shore or expand U.S. manufacturing to meet the demands from the BEAD grants.
In the requested waiver for the Middle Mile Grant Program, the NTIA identified components of a fiber network that are sourced almost exclusively in Asia. This includes electronics like broadband switching equipment, broadband routing equipment, dense wave division multiplexing transport equipment, and broadband access equipment. It doesn’t seem likely that U.S. vendors are going to step up to create an American source for these components in time to meet the needs of the BEAD grants. And while the BEAD grants are substantial, they are not alone enough inducement to manufacture these goods in this country.
The market reality is that most of the costs of any broadband grant project will be spent on American inputs. The cost of labor is usually the largest component of network costs, and the grants require this work be done by American firms. As the NTIA points out, there are plenty of sources for American fiber and conduit. There are American sources of cabinets, huts, and enclosures. There are American vendors making handholes and pedestals.
But the sticky item is going to be electronics. If the NTIA plays hardball on fiber electronics, it will be nearly impossible that any ISP can fulfill the Buy American provision. I’m not as familiar with where wireless electronics are manufactured, but I assume that WISPs have a lot of the same concerns. Electronics are a relatively tiny slice of the total cost of a fiber network but a larger percentage for a new wireless network. .
The arbiter of the Buy American rules is the U.S. Office of Management and Budget (OMB), which recently solicited nationwide comments about how firmly the Buy American rules should be enforced for projects that will be funded by the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act. There is a possibility that the OMB will be stingy with waivers even if the NTIA asks for them, but that’s a bridge that can’t be crossed until it happens.
What’s most disturbing is that this joins a list of other issues that create a lot of uncertainty for ISPs considering the BEAD grants. If we don’t start clearing up the uncertainties, states might find that the ISPs they are hoping will request grants will sit out the BEAD grants. ISPs are naturally attracted to grants, but not if the hurdles are too hard to overcome.