Congress had a number of options for how to distribute this grant funding. They could have given a role to the FCC, NTIA, USDA, or to the States. They easily also have divvied up the money and given some to each of the above – with the concept that this is a chance to see what works the best. The Act has a little bit of spreading the money around. For example, the Act gave an extra $2 billion to the USDA and the RUS ReConnect Grants. The FCC will be riding herd over the $14 billion that has been allocated to the Affordable Connectivity Program that provides discounts on broadband for qualifying low-income households. But the big grant money is going to the states with overall grant rules administered by the NTIA.
I think the awards make it clear that Congress doesn’t trust the FCC to administer a big grant program. It appears that the FCC has sullied its reputation in the way it administered the RDOF awards. Congress has repeatedly heard how unhappy constituents are with that program. Back when the idea of a giant infrastructure bill was first circulated, there was serious discussion about letting the FCC distribute the money in a giant reverse auction – and the first draft of the House bill did just that. Thankfully some sanity prevailed in Congress since that would have been a boondoggle of unprecedented horribleness. The FCC made a lot of blunders with the RDOF awards (as they had blown the CAF II program in earlier years).
It makes sense not to give the money to the FCC. I think the FCC chose the reverse auction because the agency knows it doesn’t have the staff or expertise to review complex and overlapping federal grant requests. But the agency is not supposed to have that kind of staff – the FCC is a regulatory agency that makes and enforces rules. There is nothing in that job description that would entail having a large technical staff capable of administering billions of dollars of grants. I can only hope that somehow this new gigantic funding will dissuade the FCC from holding a second round of RDOF or a 5G reverse auction that is being contemplated at the agency.
It’s clear that some in Congress like the RUS, which is part of USDA, and there have now been several annual rounds of ReConnect grants. But the RUS also doesn’t have a staff capable of quickly processing tens of billions of grants. The ReConnect grant program is paperwork-heavy, and the RUS is known for being deliberate in awarding grants and loans. Deliberateness is a great characteristic when dispensing federal dollars, but it would be a challenge for the RUS to award BEAD grants quickly.
Congress could also have given the grant obligation to the NTIA directly, but the agency has even less staff able to review grant requests than the RUS. It’s hard picturing the NTIA staffing up quickly enough to dispense $42 billion in grants. However, Congress did trust the NTIA to set the policy for the new BEAD grants. It could have given that task to any of the three agencies. The NTIA recently set the policies for the recent ARPA grants, and this probably means that somebody in Congress appreciated that effort.
Giving the money to the states might be the only practical way to dispense this money with any sanity. I’m hearing that state broadband offices across the country are adding significant staff in anticipation of these grants. That will mean many hundreds of grant reviewers and administrators – far more than any of the federal agencies could have mustered in a short period of time.
But giving the money to the states was an interesting choice because each state will put its own stamp on how to spend the money. I know that the NTIA has been given the task of making sure that the grants meet the intentions detailed by Congress in the Act. But I’ll not be surprised to see states push the boundaries of the grant rules or even defiantly disregard them. States know that this is likely the only chance to solve the rural broadband problem, and I don’t picture states failing to award grant money to places that need it, regardless of how Congress wrote the rules.