The Biden administration officially kicked off $45 billion in broadband funding on Friday, enabling states and other eligible government entities to begin applying for grants to close the digital divide. The grants are part of the $65 billion for broadband contained in the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act (IIJA).
The National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA) opened its notices of funding opportunity for three broadband grant programs on Friday: the Broadband Equity, Access, and Deployment – or BEAD – program ($42.5 billion); the Enabling Middle Mile Broadband Infrastructure program ($1 billion); and the State Digital Equity program ($1.5 billion).
"We have been talking about the digital divide in America for over 20 years. Today, @NTIAgov and @CommerceGov are launching $45 billion in programs to close that divide," said NTIA Chief Alan Davidson in a tweet.
In opening the grant programs for applications, the NTIA also launched internetforall.gov, where government entities can learn about and directly apply for grants.
On Thursday, on the heels of opening the grant programs, the NTIA, FCC, USDA and Treasury Department released a statement confirming an interagency agreement to share information about broadband funding.
As per the press release, "The respective Cabinet and Agency leaders announced that their agencies will consult with one another and share information on data collected from programs administered by the FCC, the USDA's Rural Utilities Service, programs administered or coordinated by NTIA, and Treasury's Coronavirus Capital Projects Fund and State and Local Fiscal Recovery Fund."
Commerce Secretary Gina Raimondo will appear in Durham, North Carolina, on Friday to officially kick off the grant programs and promote the administration's efforts to close the digital divide. Raimondo previously confirmed that while states will apply for funds directly, there will be a "tremendous amount of federal oversight" over the billions being distributed.
With today's announcement, states, territories and the District of Columbia may now start the process of participating in the grant programs.
They must also navigate the lengthy notice of funding opportunities (NOFO), which contain program rules and specifics.
For instance, the 98-page NOFO for the $42.5 billion BEAD program specifies that its "principal focus will be on deploying broadband service to unserved locations (those without any broadband service at all or with broadband service offering speeds below 25 megabits per second (Mbps) downstream/3 Mbps upstream) and underserved locations (those without broadband service offering speeds of 100 Mbps downstream/20 Mbps upstream)."
It goes on to say that eligible entities that can demonstrate their ability to deliver such service are free to propose plans, however, "NTIA underscores its strong preference that Eligible Entities also ensure deployment of gigabit connections to community anchor institutions such as libraries and community centers that lack such connectivity."
Further, it adds, with respect to last-mile broadband infrastructure deployment, "the Program prioritizes projects designed to provide fiber connectivity directly to the end user."
But to participate in BEAD, states and other eligible entities must first submit a letter of intent and a planning budget. That then unlocks $5 million in planning funds and allows states to begin creating a five-year action plan. "Each participating state is guaranteed a minimum $100 million allocation, with additional funding determinations made based on the forthcoming coverage maps from the Federal Communications Commission," said NTIA in a press release. Those coverage maps are expected later this year. (See Rosenworcel promises broadband map this fall.)
In a statement this morning, Gary Bolton, CEO of the Fiber Broadband Association – which has been lobbying for most of the funding to go toward fiber infrastructure – called the NOFO "one of the first steps in a complex but exciting opportunity to close the digital equity gap once and for all."
Related: New playbook guides states on getting grants and funding fiber
Bolton added that FBA will "carefully review the proposals set forth by the NTIA and continue working with the Agency to offer our counsel on how to best move this program forward and achieve successful implementation of the law.
"The Fiber Broadband Association is prepared to offer timely resources and guidance to state broadband offices as they look to leverage this funding, push fiber broadband further and connect every community to limitless possibilities," he said.
Friday's NOFO kickoff for the grant programs closes out a Very Broadband Week at the White House. On Monday, President Biden gathered with service providers to announce a deeper commitment from ISPs to deliver service to low-income Americans through the Affordable Connectivity Program: another multi-billion-dollar broadband program funded through the infrastructure law aiming to make broadband available to tens of millions of households that can't afford it.
— Nicole Ferraro, site editor, Broadband World News; senior editor, global broadband coverage, Light Reading. Host of "The Divide" on the Light Reading Podcast.