On June 3rd the Kansas City Coalition for Digital Inclusion hosted BJ Tanksley, Director of Missouri’s Office of Broadband Deployment, who spoke about the upcoming opportunities to use state and federal funds to support digital inclusion efforts throughout the region.
Status of the Missouri Omnibus Broadband Bill
Director Tanksley first gave an update on the Missouri legislature’s omnibus broadband bill, which has now passed both houses and is currently awaiting the Governor’s signature. Key provisions in the bill include authorizing the state to keep any federal funding awarded to providers who fail to complete their broadband projects, improving internet service in the State Capitol building, and clarifying that local governments can allow internet providers to place broadband infrastructure on their buildings and towers.
The bill would also establish a $250 million grant program to fund new broadband projects in unserved and underserved communities, which the bill defines as areas lacking 25/3 Mbps and 100/10 Mbps internet speeds, respectively. An additional $35 million would go toward pole replacements and building new cell towers across the state. Broadband providers participating in the grant program will be required to provide maps of their coverage area to the state, bolstering ongoing efforts to accurately map the digital divide in Missouri. Unfortunately, the final version of the bill did not include any funding for digital literacy or internet affordability programs.
New Guidelines for the NTIA Broadband Infrastructure Program
Director Tanksley also gave an update about the status of federal broadband funding that will be administered by his office. Currently, the Missouri Office of Broadband Development is preparing to accept applications for NTIA’s Broadband Infrastructure Program, a $288 million fund set up as part of the American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) to fund broadband projects that address critical needs related to the accessibility, affordability, reliability, and/or consistency of internet service in a community. The program is national, and requires each state to submit a request for funding to NTIA in partnership with ISPs who have proposed new infrastructure projects.
The Missouri Office of Broadband Development recently released draft guidelines for this program. Public comments for this draft closed on June 15th, and a final version of the guidelines is set to be released by the end of June. On July 15th, the office will begin receiving applications from service providers, and will announce final awards on November 14th. Eligible projects must offer a low-cost service tier, and must be designed to deliver symmetrical 100 Mbps internet speeds. Where symmetrical 100 Mbps speeds are not practical, projects must deliver at least 100/20 Mbps and be scalable to 100/100 in the future. However, preference will be given to projects featuring fiber infrastructure. Matching funds are not required, but applications that include private funding or funding from a local government will receive priority.
Upcoming Federal Funding – BEAD and the Digital Equity Act
The Missouri Office of Broadband Deployment will also be responsible for administering funding from the federal Broadband Equity, Access & Deployment (BEAD) program and the Digital Equity Act (DEA), which were passed as part of last year’s bipartisan infrastructure law.
The BEAD program is a $42.5 billion pool of money which, similar to the NTIA Broadband Infrastructure Program described previously, will be dispersed to the states in order to subsidize the construction of new broadband infrastructure in communities that lack access to high speed internet. It will take some time before this money becomes available, however. Director Tanksley and his office are currently assembling their letter of intent for the program, which is due in July. Once that is submitted, the office will have nine months to develop a five-year plan for administering the funds. The office will also have to submit a proposal outlining the process it will use to select grantees, which will be due six months after NTIA announces funding amounts for each state. Because of the time required for these steps, it will not be until 2024 that new infrastructure projects start being built.
The DEA program is a $2.75 billion fund which is also designed to be dispersed among the states, but which unlike BEAD is directly aimed at supporting digital inclusion efforts in local communities. The turnaround for DEA funds will be slightly faster than in the case of the BEAD program. The Missouri Office of Broadband Deployment will be submitting a planning application to NTIA by the middle of July for DEA funds, and will then have one year to develop a plan for administering the grants. Beginning this fall, Director Tanksley said that he and his staff will begin reaching out to community organizations to solicit feedback on how the office should be preparing to use this funding. Organizations can sign up for updates on this process at the Missouri DED website.
The DEA will be the primary mechanism by which the state of Missouri will be able to fund digital inclusion efforts in the near future, but Director Tanksley highlighted that there may also be some opportunities to use ARPA and BEAD funding to encourage internet providers to participate in affordability, adoption, and digital literacy programming. Director Tanksley explained that when awarding ARPA and BEAD grants, his office intends to prioritize projects that include a plan for advancing digital inclusion in their service area. Some internet providers may seek to partner with local organizations to build out internet adoption and digital literacy programming in order to satisfy this requirement. For projects that do not, organizations will have an opportunity to highlight this during the grant review process, and give their feedback about any applications that they feel would not do enough to advance digital inclusion priorities.
Next Steps for Broadband in Missouri
Director Tanksley noted that Missouri’s legislature has not yet spent all of the funds received through ARPA, and has until 2024 to finish allocating the rest of the money. This means there may be an opportunity in the next legislative session to shape how the remaining funds get distributed. He encouraged community organizations to continue appealing to lawmakers about the costs of the digital divide in the hopes that some of this money may be directed towards digital inclusion work.
For organizations interested in the workforce aspects of these upcoming broadband projects, Director Tanksley pointed to Missouri One Start, which is working with community colleges to develop a plan for how to train workers with the skills to execute all of the upcoming broadband projects that have been funded.
Director Tanksley also announced that the Missouri Office of Broadband Development is planning to add a large number of staff members in order to manage these upcoming grant programs. By the end of FY23, the office hopes to have expanded from one full time employee to fifteen. Director Tanksley encouraged community organizations to spread the word about new opportunities to join the office as it expands its capacity for grand administration, mapping, and community support.