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What States Need to Know as Federal Broadband Program Expands

The BEAD program aims to bring broadband networks to unserved and underserved communities.

By Heather Morton and Erin Louet  |  February 29, 2024

In the United States, access to reliable, high-speed internet is critical to modern life. But an estimated 1 in 5 households are not connected to the internet at home, according to the National Telecommunication and Information Administration, or NTIA, a U.S. Department of Commerce agency. The federal government, in partnership with policymakers in state, territorial and tribal governments, has taken monumental steps toward addressing this issue.

In 2021, Congress passed the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act, also known as the bipartisan infrastructure law, to improve, among many other things, access to high-speed broadband internet. The act delivers $65 billion to give every American access to a fast, reliable internet connection. The law also created the BEAD program (short for Broadband Equity, Access and Deployment), which provides grants to all 50 states, Washington, D.C., and the five territories for broadband planning, deployment, mapping, equity and other activities. The NTIA administers the program and aims to bring broadband networks to unserved and underserved communities.

Related: How State Broadband Offices Are Expanding Internet Access

With BEAD funding being largely implemented through state broadband offices, the state policy landscape will significantly impact the future of broadband connectivity. State legislators will be called on to continue their support for broadband expansion through long-term network and infrastructure maintenance, accessibility and affordability assistance; for sustaining state broadband offices; for ensuring accountability as state plans are put in place; and for championing constituents’ connectivity needs.

BEAD: Identifying and Mapping the Unserved

Congress created formulas for the distribution of BEAD funding. Each state, Washington, D.C., and Puerto Rico are eligible for a minimum allocation of $100 million. The remaining territories are eligible for a minimum of $25 million. Following this allocation, funds will be directed to unserved communities in high-cost areas, with the remainder going to unserved areas in eligible entities and the U.S. generally.

With BEAD funding being largely implemented through state broadband offices, the state policy landscape will significantly impact the future of broadband connectivity.

To determine unserved and underserved designations and how funds should be allocated, Congress directed the Federal Communications Commission to create the National Broadband Map, which replaced previous versions that collected data only at the census block level. The new map is updated every six months and provides more granular information using two distinct data sets. The first, known as the broadband serviceable location fabric, shows individual homes and businesses; the second, known as the provider-submitted service availability data, shows where internet service providers offer a broadband connection.

“By painting a more accurate picture of where broadband is and is not, local, state and federal partners can better work together to ensure no one is left on the wrong side of the digital divide,” FCC Chairwoman Jessica Rosenworcel says.

An “unserved” area in the map is one without access to at least 25 megabits per second (Mbps) download and 3 Mbps upload speeds; an “underserved” area lacks access to 100/20 Mbps, or faster, service.

States, local communities and the public may challenge inaccuracies and provide feedback on the location fabric and service availability data. The FCC conducts this so-called challenge process on a rolling basis, but each state and territory must conduct its own challenge process for BEAD, building off the FCC’s map as a base layer, before the NTIA will approve awards.

More information on eligibility and program processes can be found on the Internet for All FAQ and Answers document.

Funding Process and Timeline

To receive BEAD program funding, states were required to submit a letter of intent, signed by the governor or chief executive, by July 2022. To create their five-year action plans, states, the district and Puerto Rico could request up to $5 million, while American Samoa, Guam, the Virgin Islands and the Northern Mariana Islands could request up to $1.25 million.

After publication of the National Broadband Map, the NTIA notified eligible entities of the estimated amount of funding available to them and invited them to submit an initial grant proposal within 180 days, or by Dec. 27, 2023. Submitted over two volumes, the initial proposals described how they proposed to run their grant programs and described the competitive process to construct the broadband projects through subgrantees. Each entity was required to make its proposal available for public comment and incorporate local feedback before submitting it to the NTIA.

Upon receiving approval of the first volume of their initial proposals, broadband offices then conduct their BEAD challenge process to create a final list of unserved and underserved locations eligible for funding. Local governments, nonprofit organizations and internet service providers are eligible to submit challenges, though the exact process and the type of evidence allowed for a challenge varies by state. If needed at this stage, state legislators can fine-tune the list of unserved and underserved locations with their constituents and the eligible challengers.

Once the full initial proposal is approved, the NTIA will release funding to the broadband offices to pay for projects eligible for immediate funding and to initiate the competitive selection process. The offices will have one year to complete the selection process and submit a final proposal to the NTIA. After approval of the final proposal, the NTIA will release funding for construction. Like the initial proposal, the final proposals must be made available for public comment.

The NTIA estimates that the BEAD program implementation will take about four years. Broadband offices will monitor subgrantees for compliance and collect reports on deployment progress, and the NTIA will monitor the progress broadband offices are making on their plans and ensure compliance with the requirements of the bipartisan infrastructure law.

The Biden administration and the NTIA announced state allocations for all eligible entities on last year. Alaska received the most funding per capita, about $1,387 per resident, or $1.02 billion total. According to the NTIA, 10% of Alaska’s residents are not using the internet, and 9% do not have internet access or a device. West Virginia was awarded the second-highest allocation per capita, $682 per resident, or $1.2 billion total. The NTIA estimates 18% of West Virginia’s population is not using the internet, and 14% lack internet access or a device.

In comparison, Texas was awarded a total of $3.3 billion, the highest under the BEAD program. The NTIA estimates that 12% of state residents do not use the internet, and 11% are without internet access or a device.

According to Missouri Rep. Louis Riggs (R), who has sponsored broadband bills since his election in 2018, “The historic investment in broadband infrastructure will provide numerous opportunities to bridge the digital divide. We cannot fully participate in the 21st century without broadband internet access. Affordability is sustainability. We have one chance to get this right. I look forward to helping Missourians bridge the digital divide once and for all.” Missouri’s BEAD allocation is over $1.7 billion.

Funding amounts and recipients can be viewed on the NTIA’s website.

Heather Morton is the director of NCSL’s Financial Services, Technology and Communications Program; Erin Louet was a policy analyst in the program.

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