Where to Draw the Line: Guidance on Proposals for NTIA’s Broadband Infrastructure Program

Ziggy Rivkin-Fish, CGEIT, V.P. for Broadband Strategy

If you’re like us, you might be confused about what the National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA) accepts as service coverage data for their new Broadband Infrastructure Program (BIP). In BIP’s Notice of Funding Opportunity (NOFO), NTIA states the following:

The term “eligible service area” means a census block in which broadband service is not available at one or more households or businesses in the census block, as determined by the Assistant Secretary on the basis of: (A) the maps created under section 802(c)(1) of the Communications Act of 1934 (47 U.S.C. 642(c)(1)); or (B) if the maps described in subparagraph (A) are not available, the most recent information available to the Assistant Secretary, including information provided by the Federal Communications Commission (FCC).

NTIA, Section I.A, p. 4

So, does that mean we can use our own GIS data and maps? Yes and no. Here is our analysis of this section of the NOFO:

  • NTIA consults the National Broadband Availability Map (NBAM) when considering proposals. Essentially, NBAM adds state-provided data and speed test data to the old 477 maps. Although the final rules have not been published yet, we believe that NTIA consults the map at three points:
    1. To do a quick and rough validation at application intake to ensure that the reporting of estimated unserved addresses passes the smell test
    2. During the programmatic review, when NTIA analyzes all submitted documentation to verify project details like construction planning and financial viability
    3. To respond to a challenge from an incumbent

If NTIA’s GIS data and maps are inconclusive, it may send auditors to verify challenger and/or project claims regarding served and unserved areas included in the proposed service area. Although it has not been explicitly stated, we believe—and NTIA recently indicated in a webinar—that any documentation of served and unserved areas generated by/for a project can be included in a project submission. If you have conducted a study or mapping process, this data can play a key role in allowing NTIA to dismiss challenges without needing to complete a comprehensive inspection.

  • NBAM maps are not public, although you can access them if your state is an NBAM participant. To see if your state is participating in NBAM, click here. If your state is a participant, your state contact should be able to give you more information.
  • The proposed service areas can be part of census blocks and do not have to be contiguous. Middle-mile infrastructure is eligible for funding. Therefore, the boundaries for the proposed funding service areas drawn by you and your partner(s) can consist of clusters if they’re connected by middle-mile.
  • Including some served locations in your proposal should not be a problem. NTIA’s criteria for an unserved area is that at least one address in a census block is unserved. However, a higher number of unserved addresses, as well as a high unserved-to-served ratio, will positively impact the project’s score.
  • Fixed wireless coverage counts for BIP could potentially eliminate a census block from funding since physical inspection is difficult and field testing is unreliable. NTIA has not indicated how it plans to test fixed wireless claims, but its first go-to resource is its own NBAM map. If you have independent speed test or survey data to document no service, below-average broadband speeds, and/or unreliable service, your project will be less vulnerable to exaggerated fixed wireless provider claims. If your state participates in NBAM, you should also contact your state broadband office to consult NTIA’s map.
  • Prior federal or state broadband funding in a census block does not necessarily preclude an area from consideration but must be disclosed in the grant application. NTIA will consult its maps to determine if a census block should be excluded. A census block that has been previously funded with state or federal funds such as the Connect America Fund II (CAF II) would not—if there are still unserved households—preclude an applicant from including such an area, but it could weaken the overall score of the project and could potentially exclude it. While the status of RDOF, including SpaceX-awarded areas, is uncertain, we suspect that low-speed, fixed wireless, CAF II projects would be disregarded by NTIA.

For our first-take analysis of the NOFO, you can check out our previous post here. Be on the lookout for more expert analysis of the Broadband Infrastructure Program and everything else you need to know for efficient, affordable, and equitable broadband infrastructure. If you have any questions or need assistance in the meantime, please feel free to contact us.

Published: Friday, June 18, 2021 by CTC Technology & Energy