Carson started in this role in May 2022 after the authority was announced in February as the government body that will oversee the dispersal of millions in federal grant funding for broadband internet access initiatives across the state — at least $100 million, per the 2021 Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act.
The authority spent much of 2022 focused on developing a Statewide Broadband Plan that was approved at the Nov. 17 PABDA meeting. This plan focuses on four subject areas: affordability, literacy and education, access, and devices. (Read the full plan here.)
Carson said during the November meeting that this plan was a “living document,” meaning that things will change and be added as the PABDA works on these goals.
“We are going to be actively using the plan as we map out some of our additional work and develop our strategies for deploying broadband and making investments in the coming years,” he said.
What will that work look like in 2023? Here’s what the director said Pennsylvanians can expect — especially stakeholders who might want to apply for that federal funding on behalf of an organization working on digital access or equity.
BEAD and Digital Equity Program plans
Over the summer, the PABDA submitted two federal grant applications, requesting about $6.6 million total in planning funds through the federal Digital Equity Program and Broadband Equity Access and Deployment program (BEAD) dispersed by the National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA). Carson said both of those applications were approved before the end of 2022.
“These are the initial funds to help us to do the necessary, more granular planning work that will posture us to make good investments, solid investments, once the BEAD implementation dollars start to flow,” he told Technical.ly. “They’re also implementation dollars on the digital equity side, too.”
PABDA must now complete a five-year action plan for BEAD and a digital equity plan for the Digital Equity program before funds are given to the state to distribute. The strategies for how to achieve the four goals in the statewide plan will be more fleshed out in those plans, Carson said.
The BEAD action plan must be submitted to NTIA by mid-August, and the digital equity plan has a fall deadline. Carson said there’s been more focus on work related to BEAD because it’s where more of the to-be-dispersed money will be coming from, but advised the stakeholders following this work to keep the digital equity funds in mind, too, because there’s still a lot of opportunity there.
BEAD funds must be used for unserved areas, underserved areas and anchor institutions without synchronous connectivity. The PABDA plans to bring on a consultant to help develop these plans.
“That five-year action plan is going to be more detailed than what you’re seeing with the current plan that was adopted back in November,” he said. “But the existing plan is going to serve as a roadmap and a framework as we embark on this more in depth, more granular planning effort in 2023.”
Subcommittees are assisting with FCC map challenges
In 2022, the PABDA formed four subcommittees to inform the board and the planning process from a statewide perspective.
“With only eight seats available per subcommittee, we needed to ensure fairness and transparency when identifying members,” he said of forming the groups with stakeholder input. “Knowing there are a number of associations who represent groups of stakeholders like internet service providers, local governments, labor organizations, etc., we recognized the importance of engaging those groups.”
The four subcommittees are data and mapping, technical, workforce and supply chain, and outreach and education. Initial meetings of these four committees occurred in September and helped to finalize the statewide broadband plan that was approved in November. The subcommittees are now deciding what to prioritize in 2023 and they will present updates at a Jan. 26 board of directors meeting.
Here’s what each subcommittee will focus on:
- Data mapping is working with Penn State Extension to verify data in the Federal Communications Commission broadband access map and develop “bulk challenges” to data reported in Pennsylvania. This map, released in November, shows where broadband is or isn’t serviceable anywhere in the U.S., and will help to determine how much money each state is allocated from BEAD and Digital Equity funds. “We’re working closely with Penn State and the data and mapping group to ensure that what’s being reported for Pennsylvania is accurate so that we can ensure our fair share of funds to adequately address the problems that exist,” Carson said.
- The technical subcommittee is working on “a broadband readiness strategy” to ensure that once funds are allocated, these projects can be completed more efficiently.
- The workforce and supply chain group is working on strategies to address supply chain issues.
- And the outreach and education group has been spreading awareness about the FCC maps to encourage people to check what’s being reported about broadband access at their address — “so that if there are any discrepancies, they can challenge the information that’s been reported, and again, ensure that the FCC has accurate data before the NTIA awards any dollars through the BEAD allocation,” Carson said. (You can search your own address here.)
The deadline to submit bulk and individual challenges to the map is Jan. 13. Once the challenges are submitted, the FCC has 60 days to will investigate the state broadband service at the addresses submitted.
What should stakeholders know going forward?
The NTIA is committed to a June 30 deadline to allocate BEAD funds, and the PABDA intends for the five-year plan to be in place by fall 2023, opening grant programs for BEAD in early 2024, Carson said.
In the meantime, PABDA also has $279 million in capital project funds, which came from American Rescue Plan funds that were allocated to each state. Carson said the PABDA plans to open grant program applications for that money in the spring.
A cool $200 million of that pot will go toward a core infrastructure grant program.
“We will solicit for applications for both wired technologies and wireless solutions in areas that are again focusing on unserved and underserved,” Carson said. “That is the key point we want to continue to invest in, those areas that lack access.” Some of the funds will go toward anchor institutions to improve their facilities, and some will go toward a device access program.
Groups such as the Technology Learning Collaborative, Philly Community Wireless and the Office of Innovation and Technology in Philly; the Pittsburgh Digital Equity Coalition and Community Internet Solutions in Pittsburgh; and others across the state have long been working toward increased digital access and equity. Carson said he doesn’t want to “reinvent the wheel at the state level,” but rather build on the work that’s already happening. One of the PABDA’s goals for early 2023 is to inventory existing digital equity plans and programs to understand the work that’s been done, what challenges remain and how they can help.
If you represent this type of Pennsylvania-based organization, what can you do now? While BEAD and Digital Equity funds are still a ways away, Carson said those who want to apply for money should consider the Capital Project grant programs later this year. Long term, the PABDA plans to be involved in the community as it develops its next plans.
“I would encourage individuals and groups, don’t hesitate to reach out to us, but we certainly will be reaching out to you as well,” he said. “We want it to be a two-way line of communication. We’ve been committed to a transparent planning process. We want to use these funds effectively and wisely.”Sarah Huffman is a 2022-2023 corps member for Report for America, an initiative of The Groundtruth Project that pairs young journalists with local newsrooms. This position is supported by the Lenfest Institute for Journalism.
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