At the inaugural NRECA Broadband Leadership Summit, policymakers in charge of a $42.5 billion federal program for universal broadband were clear: Electric cooperatives will be key to its success.

“This is one of the few places where the idea that we could come together and run a wire or a fiber to everybody is not only not crazy but is old news,” the National Telecommunications and Information Administration’s Evan Feinman told conference attendees, who gathered in Washington, D.C., Nov. 17-18.

“This is the group of folks that got electrification done. What we need is y’all’s help again to make this program work.”

Congress assigned the largest portion of “internet for all” funding in the 2021 infrastructure law to NTIA’s new Broadband Equity, Access and Deployment program.

As the program director, Feinman told conference attendees about BEAD’s setup and how co-ops can participate. Key details include:

  • Each state and territory will receive $100 million or more to distribute for rural broadband development.

  • NTIA is hiring BEAD officers to be the program’s primary contact in each state and territory.

  • BEAD is required to rely on the Federal Communications Commission’s coverage maps to identify areas as unserved or underserved (speeds lower than 100 megabits per second download and 20 Mbps upload).

FCC released these maps Nov. 18, and NTIA will allow one challenge round by residents, businesses or anyone in the community to ensure their accuracy before funds are distributed.

“We determine what is true and not true and build to those places,” Feinman said. “That’s going to take a lot of doing, and we’re going to need your help.”

Asked whether it could take years to get BEAD funds to rural projects, Feinman said that will depend on how prepared state governments are. He noted that many state governments have yet to open a broadband office, while others may disburse funds within weeks of getting their allocation.

“We can’t let funds out the door if a state has not done all the rigorous work to ensure the funds are well spent,” he said.

Co-op leaders also raised concerns about completing projects before BEAD funds become available. Loans, other federal assistance deadlines and the urgency to serve their members may force many co-ops to forgo this program, they said.

Under the law, BEAD offers no post-construction awards, Feinman said, but co-ops may consider connecting underserved adjacent communities, expanding the take rate within their footprint with digital literacy and exploring different sectors such as smart agriculture.

Even at their broadband capacity, co-ops “can be incredibly helpful to our program in adding your voice and credibility to our program,” he said. “Our goal with this program is for it to be a good business decision to put in a winning bid.”