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NTIA's OICG Issues First Broadband Access Report

NTIA

The National Telecommunications & Information Administration's Office of Internet Connectivity and Growth (OICG) has released its first Access Broadband annual report, which makes clear the office is establishing itself as the primary actor in closing the digital divide, at least when it comes to government spending.

Since it is the inaugural report, a lot of it is about how the report will be done in the future and how the information will be collected. But one takeaway is that broadband funding touches a myriad of departments and agencies beyond the most familiar ones--NTIA, the FCC and the Department of Agriculture's rural broadband programs, so there will be a lot of coordinating to do as it oversees the Biden Administration efforts to achieve universal broadband by the end of the decade.

The office was created last July as part of the Consolidated Appropriations Act of 2021 with the charter to "engage in outreach and assistance for state, local, and tribal entities; track spending on federal broadband support programs and Universal Service Fund (USF) programs; streamline the applications process for financial assistance or grants for such programs; and coordinate with other agencies to enhance efficiency and minimize duplication of federal broadband support.

That spending amounts to tens of billions of dollars per legislation passed by Congress under Presidents Trump and Biden.

The biggest chunk of that is the Broadband Equity, Access, and Deployment (BEAD) Program, which is giving a whopping $42.45 billion to states to develop their own broadband plans and to build out infrastructure and promote adoption in unserved and underserved communities.

Also: FCC Launches Latest Billion-Dollar Broadband Subsidy

Congress also directed OICG to produce an annual report, which it has now done.

According to the report, OICG's core missions are 1) funding broadband infrastructure and digital inclusion efforts and tracking those investments, 2) leveraging data for decision making, 3) coordinating among states, tribes and the private sector, and boost broadband capacity in communities including by providing digital inclusion tools to further broadband equity.

Since it is the first report, much of it deals with setting up the parameters for future reports and the limitations of its findings given a lack of standardization of data across programs administered by the FCC, Department of Agriculture and NTIA. For example, it said its funding findings only reflect those who responded to its request for data and so, "should not be treated as a comprehensive view of the federal broadband funding landscape," so provide insight but not definitive data.

The report lays out the agency landscape for broadband investment across agencies' multi-use programs, which are ones where funds are eligible for broadband but don't have to be used for broadband. NTIA says those programs provide "critical broadband support to communities across the country."

They include:

The Appalachian Regional Committee. This agency, which is an economic development partnership of the federal government and a baker's dozen state governments whose goal is to create parity between that region and the rest of the nation, so broadband is "a core part of the mission," said OIGC

The U.S. Economic Development Administration (EDA), within the Department of Commerce. The EDA promotes world innovation and competitiveness, so broadband is a key component of that mission. It provides broadband funding through public works and economic and technical assistance programs.

The Department of Education. Broadband is a big part of DEA's mission to ready students for global competitiveness and, in a time of pandemic, to fund remote learning, which OICG said has now become "a prerequisite to engage with the education system."

Department of Housing and Urban Development. "A broadband connection is increasingly considered an essential tool in any house or apartment," the report said. "For several of its programs, HUD offers funding that can be used to provide broadband access in housing units and in some cases, the department requires that funding recipients make broadband accessible in their housing units."

Treasury Department. Treasury administers the Community Development Financial Institutions (CDFI) Fund is used to create economic opportunity for underserved communities. Within that is the New Markets Tax Credit (NMTC), which "incentivizes
community development and economic growth through the use of tax credits that
attract private investment to distressed communities," Broadband is one of the areas eligible for that NMTC investment.

Department of Labor. The department funds broadband as part of programs addressing job dislocation and training. The Employment and Training Administration (ETA) allocates funds to states for devices and broadband access "that will allow a participant to create or maintain a wireless connection for distance learning, searching for jobs, and other employment and training services where such services are already allowable."

NTIA concedes there will be many challenges in tracking federal broadband investments across all those agencies and more. Those include 1) the "significant variation" in how programs define "connection" and how they collect the data on speed, latency or capacity that the definition could entail; 2) agency "capacity and technology" constraints in providing the data the OICG needs; and 3) measuring outcomes for infrastructure that will take years to build out.

To make its job of data collection easier, or perhaps even achievable, OICG recommends: 1) To the extent practical, government agencies should adopt consistent standards and "harmonized definitions; 2) include broadband data requirements in agencies' already required reporting on the funds they award, which OICG said "could reduce duplicative, time consuming, and costly requests"; and 3) identify data sources and alternative sources, for example, better broadband availability mapping from the FCC, which is in the works. ■