States are mapping out internet-limited areas and developing 5-year action plans as they prepare to distribute the most federal aid they've ever seen allocated for broadband expansion. 

The bipartisan infrastructure bill enacted last fall earmarked $65 billion for broadband expansion, which will augment $9.8 billion provided to the states earlier through the American Rescue Plan, a stimulus bill enacted in March 2021. The American Rescue Plan money can fund a variety of infrastructure needs, including broadband.

Separately, the Agriculture Department will get $2 billion from the infrastructure bill to provide loans and grants for rural broadband projects through the existing ReConnect program.

The Federal Communications Commission estimated in 2017 it would cost $80 billion to connect all underserved communities in the U.S. That's likely an underestimate, given problems with the accuracy of FCC’s broadband maps, but state officials are still hoping the money from the two bills will go a long way in efforts to bring internet connectivity to areas that need it. 

“The American Rescue Plan and the Infrastructure, Investment and Jobs Act together represent a truly historical level of investment,” Nate Denny, the deputy secretary for broadband and digital equity with the North Carolina Department of Information Technology, told Agri-Pulse. “There is nothing like this, nor likely will there be again, in terms of broadband funding.”

The largest portion of the broadband funding — $42.45 billion — will be distributed by the Commerce Department to states as part of the Broadband Equity, Access and Deployment program.

States and territories will initially receive $100 million of this funding, but will need to submit 5-year action plans to the National Telecommunications and Information Administration before receiving additional funding. The rest of the program’s money will be doled out based on the number of unserved areas every state contains, based on the FCC’s 2022 update of its broadband maps, which are intended to identify service gaps. 

“That funding will become available to states after the FCC's big new mapping project is done, so it may be some number of months before we see that funding,” Denny said. “In North Carolina, we're not waiting for that funding. We're using the American Rescue Plan Act funds to first attack the problem.”

A Commerce Department spokesperson told Agri-Pulse the process for distributing the initial BEAD money will begin in May.  

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The Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act also includes $275 billion in grants to promote digital equity and inclusion, or, according to the FCC, promote adoption and expand the use of broadband services for low-income households, aging populations, rural inhabitants, racial and ethnic minorities and a number of other groups. 

This funding will be distributed 3 ways — $60 million will be given to states to develop “digital equity plans,” $144 billion will be provided to states over 5 years through annual grant programs, and $1.25 billion will be distributed to any governments or organizations with planned digital equity projects that are approved by the NTIA. 

Brian Whitacre, an agricultural economics professor at Oklahoma State University, said the digital equity program is the first of its kind in the nation and is centered around helping people understand how to use the internet and the ways it can benefit them.

“This is something that people in my field have been advocating for at least five years now,” Whitacre said. “It's this idea of digital inclusion, which means maybe we need to help people get a tablet or help them understand how to use Excel and submit a job application online and stuff like that. So it's training people how to productively use the internet.”

With the first $60 million in funding, states are required to develop digital equity plans and determine what state agency will be responsible for carrying out that digital equity plan. Angie Dickison, executive director for the Minnesota Office of Broadband Development, told Agri-Pulse that her office would likely be the one in Minnesota tasked with carrying out that plan, but that still needs to be determined. For now, however, she said the state is in the beginning steps of determining what its digital equity plan should look like.

"Our office is leading that work for now,” Dickison told Agri-Pulse. "As we find out more about how these programs are going to be deployed at the federal level, we'll certainly adjust and support another office if that's how it turns out to be."

Washington has also undertaken steps to better determine what can be done in the state for digital equity. Erika Henry, the deputy director of the Washington State Broadband Office, said the agency is planning to conduct digital equity forums with communities around the state to better understand the needs of those communities.

“This is going to be some community engagement work with communities to understand what their priorities are, what their needs are, what their vision is for how we get broadband in their community and really understanding those local values and challenges as best we can,” Henry told Agri-Pulse.

There are two other programs authorized by the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act to help distribute funding. The Enabling Middle Mile Broadband Infrastructure Program will provide $1 billion to states, tribal governments, utility companies, nonprofits and other entities for constructing and improving middle mile infrastructure. Another $2 billion will go to the Tribal Broadband Connectivity Program, which funds broadband deployment on tribal lands. 

The NTIC spokesperson told Agri-Pulse that the agency is already distributing grants for the first round of the Tribal Broadband Connectivity Program, but has not determined what timeline it will use for the Middle Mile and Digital Equity programs. 

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