Law on investment in infrastructure and employment supports broadband partnerships

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Background

Broadband networks, like the power supply systems a century ago,[1] have increasingly become engines and catalysts for simultaneous progress in just about everything that matters to communities. This includes strong economic development, lifelong education opportunities, homeland security, public safety, modern and affordable health care, workforce training and retraining, energy efficiency and security, smart transportation, environmental protection, efficient government services and much more. As a result, a growing number of initiatives across America have sought to facilitate affordable broadband access by working with willing incumbents, partnering with new entrants, establishing their own communications networks, or establishing their own communications networks. developing new creative alternatives. For many, broadband partnerships have become the most attractive option; for some, partnerships may be their only option.[2]

Depending on the circumstances, partnerships can greatly improve the chances of a successful broadband project. Among other things, they can facilitate the pooling of resources available to partners, enable each partner to perform the tasks for which it is best suited and allow an asymmetric distribution of benefits. For example, a well-designed partnership can take advantage of the ability of a public or cooperative entity to invest “patient capital” in projects that provide long-term benefits to the community and, at the same time, meet the need for development. ‘a private entity to earn more immediate profits. In some cases, partnerships can also enable parties to comply with state restrictions on purely public broadband initiatives.

Recognizing the appeal of broadband partnerships, Congress and several states have sought to encourage them to help accelerate the deployment, adoption and use of broadband. To cite a few examples at the federal level, Congress allocated $ 300 million in the Consolidated Appropriations Act to be distributed by the National Telecommunications and Information Administration exclusively to PPPs.[3] Under the United States Department of Agriculture’s ReConnect program, PPPs are not only eligible for funding, but USDA’s Rural Utilities Service scoring criteria awards 15 points to PPPs for this. to do.[4] Likewise, the bill that would become the Build Back Better Act, which the House of Representatives passed last Friday, contains a $ 280 million pilot program for urban P3s.[5]

Broadband partnerships are also increasingly popular at the state level. For example, responding with admirable vision to the COVID-19 pandemic, the Arkansas legislature voted unanimously this year to expand the power of municipalities to engage in broadband initiatives. Among other things, Arkansas allowed municipalities to fund broadband projects through municipal bonds or special taxes, provided they “associate, contract, or otherwise associate. with an entity experienced in the operation of facilities to be acquired or constructed ”.[6] A number of other states have funding programs that encourage or limit eligibility for broadband partnerships.[7]

Broadband partnerships under the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act

The IIJA does not only favor broadband partnerships. It also does this for transport[8] and cybersecurity.[9] (See, for example, section 40121). Regarding broadband, the Act sets the BEAD program at $ 42.45 to support qualified broadband projects. The law defines the term “eligible entity” as “a State”,[10] and it provides that states will channel these funds to eligible “sub-recipients”. This term is broadly defined as “an entity which receives grant funds from an eligible entity to carry out activities under subsection (f)”.[11] Elsewhere, however, the law makes it clear that Congress wanted partnerships to be among the preferred beneficiaries of IIJA funds (with our emphasis added in italics):

Section 60102 (h) BROADBAND NETWORK DEPLOYMENT.—

(1) ORDER OF REWARDS; PRIORITY.-

(A) GENERAL. — An eligible entity, making sub-grants for the deployment of a broadband network using grant funds received under this section, as authorized under paragraph (f) (1) –

… (Iii) cannot exclude cooperatives, non-profit organizations, Public-private partnerships, private companies, public or private services, public service districts or local governments for eligibility for these grant funds …

Additionally, Section 60102 (e) (1) (D) requires states to submit five-year action plans in accordance with specifications that the Deputy Secretary (the Chief of NTIA) is required to develop:

(ii) REQUIREMENTS OF ACTION PLANS. The Assistant Secretary shall establish the requirements for the five-year action plan submitted by an eligible entity under clause (i), which may include requirements for:

… (VI) determine the best way to serve unserved locations in the eligible entity, whether through the creation of cooperatives or Public-private partnerships;

As Kathryn de Wit, director of the Broadband Access Initiative at Pew Charitable Trusts, aptly put it in her recent article on the fundamental changes the IIJA can bring about,

One thing is certain: Changes, whether it be training clinicians in new technologies, connecting homes with fiber optics, or retraining workers, will not happen without partnerships. This is why the timing of the state’s five-year action plans is so critical. Research from The Pew Charitable Trusts found that states have already used planning processes to assess needs, stimulate stakeholder engagement, and develop a plan to meet broadband expansion goals.

Now is the time for businesses, research organizations, community partners and others to participate in the state’s ongoing planning efforts, helping to shape state strategies for the use of federal dollars and developing plans that meet the needs of the state and its communities through means such as sharing information on skills gaps in the workforce, identifying evidence-based solutions to increase The use of telehealth or the increase in how living on a fixed income may influence the ability of aging Americans to access digital resources.[12]

Five or ten years into the future, we can think of this as “the age of partnerships” – looking at that term in its broadest sense. Let us act now to make this happen.

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