Following through on his campaign pledge to bridge the nation’s digital divide, President Joe Biden is advocating an infrastructure bill that calls for spending as much as $100 billion to make high-speed broadband universal across America. Federal lawmakers will debate the matter, making the plan’s future — and the ultimate price tag — anything but clear, with months expected to sort it out.
More than 30 million Americans live in areas where there is no broadband infrastructure that provides minimally acceptable speeds. Americans in rural areas and on tribal lands particularly lack adequate access. Communities unserved or underserved by broadband Internet — most notably rural stretches — who want to capture any federal funding to change that must act now.
Planning, design, and construction of community broadband projects are complex and don’t come together at the snap of a finger, meaning communities that proactively show their planned initiatives as being “shovel ready” stand the best chances of taking advantage of future funding.
Under Biden’s plan — also focused on transportation, energy, and water improvements — high-speed broadband infrastructure will provide 100 percent coverage. Price transparency and competition will be promoted among Internet providers, and the cost of Internet broadband service will be shaved to ensure that every American who wants it can afford it, with funds set aside for tribal nations.
Such funding, similar to 2009’s American Recovery and Reinvestment Act stimulus package and last year’s COVID-19 federal relief spending, typically is routed through existing programs at federal and state levels. And while Biden’s infrastructure plan most likely won’t be decided for months, waiting until any programs are formally announced could be too late for your community’s project.
The message: Take action now to position your community’s project as viable, credible, and ready, if and when Congress signs off on broadband grants.
And getting started requires just a few actions, including thoughtful consideration of a design-build approach that’s a proven success:
- Reexamine past decisions through a fresh lens. Examine your previous broadband analyses and acknowledge that your outlook and options may have changed. Community broadband matters have complexities, ranging from the financial commitment to the ecosystem of partners, subscription rates, and the approach to deployment. Could the infusion of new funds open the door to new local scenarios?
- Revise your scope and plan. Keep your roadmap realistic by understanding that offering universal service community-wide is the ultimate goal, not necessarily the first step. Is there a key project component that if funded or completed will propel additional connectivity? Perhaps connecting existing fiber infrastructure to complete a local fiber ring or a scope addressing the least-populated areas could be the motivating factor for a private investment partner such as a local Internet service provider.
- Design-build approach. Communities that want to expand broadband services should consider the design-build approach. It enables a streamlined procurement, with the flexibility to make course adjustments as you proceed. This can be especially effective in projects involving undefined funding and final scope. Your design-build partner will take your project from concept to reality, beginning with a high-level design of your project scope. This high-level design will cover the necessary engineering and planning components, including project cost estimates, giving you the data necessary to proceed with funding requests and negotiate with Internet service providers.
- Shovel Worthy. Engaging the community and demonstrating support from local businesses, economic, political, and school leaders, along with the project’s economic impact and a demonstration that your project is shovel-ready, will help build a narrative to strengthen your case in your quest for a grant. Community figureheads can make the difference, offering their perspective about how improved Internet availability will enhance their ability to meet individual objectives.
“Broadband Internet is the new electricity,” a White House statement pronounced on March 31. “It is necessary for Americans to do their jobs, to participate equally in school learning, health care, and to stay connected.”
Without question, mapping out the logistics of it all and ultimately making broadband your community’s reality can appear daunting, but it doesn’t have to be with a proven partner to help shepherd your path.
The rewards can be profound, liberating, and even transformational.
“This pandemic has made clear that broadband is no longer nice-to-have, it’s need-to-have for everyone, everywhere,” Jessica Rosenworcel, the Federal Communications Commission’s acting chairwoman, said in March. “Working together, we can solve the digital divide and give everyone a fair shot at Internet Age success.”
Take action now to ensure your “shovel-worthy” community broadband project is “shovel-ready” when this unprecedented funding opportunity becomes available.
Steve Truebner is a Sales Director in the Telecom Division of Black & Veatch. He has more than 20 years of experience working with the public sector. Specializing in public-private partnerships, he has led a wide range of energy, infrastructure, and technology deployments across 30 US states. Steve’s focus at Black & Veatch is on broadband expansion and intelligent infrastructure solutions with cities, states, and utilities. Feel free to reach out to Steve at TruebnerSW@bv.com.
For more information, please visit Black & Veatch at www.bv.com.
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