Over the last year, the Federal government has allocated billions in funding to help close the digital divide nationwide. Multiple Federal entities, including the Treasury Department and the National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA), have been tasked with overseeing the allocation of Federal funds.
During a panel at the Internet Society’s State of the Net 2022 conference, leaders from the Treasury Department and NTIA stressed the importance of interagency coordination, equity, and accurate data collection when it comes to deploying Federal broadband funding.
As part of the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act, signed into law by President Biden in November of last year, NTIA was given $48 billion dollars to support three broadband programs. The three programs are the Broadband Equity, Access & Deployment Program (BEAD), which received $42.45 billion, the Enabling Middle Mile Broadband Infrastructure Program, which was given $1 billion, and the Digital Equity Act, which was given $2.75 billion.
During the conference, Russ Hanser, director of communications of Policy Initiatives at NTIA, explained that while NTIA is tasked with overseeing the three programs, interagency coordination is essential if the Federal government is going to be successful in its goal to get everyone in the country connected to highspeed, affordable broadband.
“The only way to reach out Federal objectives … is to make sure we are working in tandem on the same team,” Hasner said, adding that NTIA is already working with agencies such as the Department of Agriculture and the Federal Communications Commission.
Joseph Wender, director of Capital Projects Fund at the Department of Treasury, agreed that coordination is key and said there has already been significant involvement from as high up as the White House. Wender said the White House has been heavily involved on a weekly basis to ensure that all involved agencies are “all swimming in the right direction.”
In his role at Treasury, Wender is tasked with overseeing the $10 billion allocated for capital funds as part of the American Rescue Plan (ARP), also signed into law last year. The goal of the ARP funding is to help states respond directly to the COVID-19 pandemic. Wender added that Treasury is already receiving grant plans from states detailing how they want to use their ARP funding and the department is seeing “a huge emphasis on broadband.”
Tying back to the topic of coordination, and delving into the importance of data collection, Wender explained that for Treasury, “coordination has already gotten to the point of more than talk.”
He said that since Treasury is rolling out significant Federal funding ahead of many other agencies, which he called both a blessing and curse, they’re going to have to tell funding recipients how to report their use of funding. Wender said there have already been “a number of interagency meetings” to ensure that the data Treasury is collecting will align with the data that other agencies are planning to collect.
While he didn’t want to delve into the topic of broadband mapping too much, Wender said the coordination of data collection is important because all of the data collected by agencies will eventually be used to populate broadband deployment maps. “We want to make sure we can compare apples to apples and the data we are collecting can be fed up to what the NTIA is collecting,” he explained, adding, “we are way out in front of that.”
Turning to the importance of addressing equity in broadband deployment, Hanser acknowledged that the Federal government’s top priority is connecting the unserved to high speed, affordable broadband and a secondary priority is connecting the underserved to faster and more affordable broadband than they currently have access to.
Hanser stressed that “equity is incredibly important.” Tying back to NTIA’s BEAD Program, he said, “We like to remind people that the e in BEAD stands for ‘Equity’ and without it, it would just be a ‘BAD’ program.”