Biased Oversight Should Not Undermine Closing the Digital Divide

The American public deserves a more comprehensive analysis of the BEAD program that includes the thoughts and recommendations of the public interest community.

Since the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act (IIJA) was signed into law in 2021, the National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA) has been tasked with doing the bulk of the heavy-lifting with the continued management and disbursement of a historic amount of broadband funding which most notably includes $42.45 billion for the Broadband Equity Access and Deployment (BEAD) program, $2.75 billion for Digital Equity Act programs, funding for middle-mile projects, and Tribal broadband connectivity grants.

Surprisingly, the Department of Commerce Office of Inspector General (OIG) recently sent a management alert to the NTIA with a notification of what they identified as “risks” that could affect broadband programs administered by the agency. To be clear, this was not about the NTIA running afoul of a process; it instead reads like a critique of the NTIA’s policies alongside recommendations to change them with input from industry only. The OIG sent this management alert despite the fact that there’s no claimed violation of process, no allegation of any wrongdoing, and no allegation that the NTIA’s policy decisions are an infraction of any kind. Just take a look at the OIG’s proposed actions for changes: 

“To address the potential impacts of the identified challenges, the NTIA should consider: 

  1. Relaxing the BEAD [Notice of Funding Opportunity (NOFO)’s] fiber preference and Extremely High Cost Per Location Threshold provision to take into consideration the limited availability of resources to support fiber preference.
  2. Developing a formal oversight process to ensure overbuilding would be limited to those locations permitted by IIJA, which the NTIA identified as locations with existing internet service using unlicensed spectrum or satellite.
  3. Working with or forming a coalition with the broadband industry, states, and territories to develop a national database of critical broadband industry jobs and national, standardized training programs, certifications, and licenses.” 

What’s more is that only one group of stakeholders was asked to identify challenges. That group included industry incumbents who were unable to get what they wanted in the inclusive process done in accordance to law. In fact, the management alert explicitly states that, “[b]ased on our ongoing work, we asked industry stakeholders to identify challenges they are facing with broadband programmatic deployment to unserved and underserved locations.” 

So here’s the thing: the NTIA has heard all these arguments and has made their policy decisions. The agency worked closely and collaboratively with states, civil society, community-based organizations, and industry to find the best paths forward to equitably and efficiently close all sides of the digital divide by addressing gaps in broadband deployment, affordability, and access to critical digital skills all with the goal of ensuring every community can thrive in this digital age no matter their income-level, geographic region, or race. Like our friends in the broadband industry, Public Knowledge weighs in continuously with the NTIA on broadband policy matters including in response to the agency’s call for comments on Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act Implementation.

If the OIG had consulted with other stakeholders in addition to industry incumbents, we think the OIG’s analysis and recommendations would have yielded different results. The NTIA itself continues to do so, and the agency even has a requirement for states to engage in diverse stakeholder outreach for their broadband plans to be accepted as a prerequisite for receiving broadband grant funds. It is imperative that government officials (including the OIG) don’t just talk the talk but also walk the walk.

Creating a “Wrong” Will Not Make a Right 

We believe the NTIA rightfully provided ample opportunity for stakeholders to weigh in on how best to implement the BEAD program as mandated by Congress. As part of civil society, we saw firsthand how the NTIA conducted outreach to a wide range of stakeholders to ensure there was a diversity of ideas and recommendations in submissions the agency received in response to its request for comments. After reviewing hundreds of comment submissions, the NTIA issued BEAD grant program rules through its Notice of Funding Opportunity. First, as noted in our comments, “Congress required states to prioritize projects that are located in persistent or high poverty areas, which offer faster speeds, or are completed more quickly” and “Congress authorized the NTIA to provide additional guidance on how the states should prioritize deployment projects.” Public Knowledge, alongside many other stakeholders, recommended that the NTIA “prioritize symmetrical future-proof networks—of which fiber is one type” in order to ensure funds from this historic investment are spent wisely.

Additionally, as it relates to overbuilding, this should be carefully defined because internet service that does not meet the definition of broadband, that is much more expensive than wireline service, or that has unavoidable capacity constraints, will not efficiently close the digital divide in communities that historically and presently have been overlooked and lacked the investments necessary to close the digital divide. Further, it must be noted that digital discrimination can lead to communities being underserved, and not just unserved, which is also a serious cause for concern.

Lastly, we do agree that it is important to ensure we have a skilled workforce ready to deploy broadband. It could be impactful to develop a national database of critical broadband industry jobs and standardized training programs, certifications, and licenses. The OIG could have benefitted from interviews with those who have workforce development programs that have been successful in skilling up or reskilling workers. This is particularly true for programs focused on diverse communities across urban, rural, and Tribal areas.

This report on shortcomings of the BEAD program by the OIG was incomplete and ignores the responsibility that NTIA has to listen to the public. The American public deserves a more comprehensive analysis that includes the thoughts and recommendations of the public interest community. Through this method, the OIG would ensure that the considerations sent to the NTIA are more accurate and simultaneously more effective.