As the federal government sets rules to award $42.5 billion in broadband grants, NRECA is weighing in to encourage a fair, flexible and efficient process for electric cooperatives and other small entities seeking funding.

“We recommend commonsense priorities that remove obstacles and help facilitate the deployment of broadband to unserved and underserved areas,” said Greg Orlando, NRECA regulatory affairs director. “That means giving our co-ops the flexibility to succeed and meet their broadband deployment goals.”

The National Telecommunications and Information Administration is developing guidance for grant applications and disbursement under the landmark Broadband Equity, Access and Deployment (BEAD) Program, the largest-ever federal grant program to aid high-speed internet service nationwide.

Electric co-ops may begin applying for BEAD grants as early as next year from their states, which received program allocations in June and must follow the NTIA’s disbursement rules.

NRECA submitted comments to NTIA on Aug. 4 in response to specific questions from the agency about how best to set up an administrative process for BEAD, which was created by the 2021 bipartisan infrastructure law.

NRECA recommended that NTIA follow broadband guidance recently set by the U.S. Treasury for capital project funds and other state and local grant programs.

“Providing regulatory consistency and predictability across multistep broadband programs creates greater efficiency, saves time and money, and allows greater participation by electric co-ops or small internet providers, which are the focus of the BEAD program,” Orlando said.

NRECA also recommended that NTIA avoid duplicative actions that can increase expenses and delay projects, particularly in the areas of procurement and transfer of broadband property.

“Electric co-ops that have already secured supplies or have an existing supply line for broadband goods and services should not be required to enter into competitive bidding to win a BEAD grant,” said Orlando. “In this period of high inflation, that may result in higher costs, not lower costs, for a small internet service provider.”

Co-ops also should be able to sell or transfer assets to their broadband subsidiary without violating BEAD grant requirements or triggering onerous administrative tasks.

“NRECA supports the NTIA proposal but suggested improvements to provide additional flexibility and bring NTIA’s requirements in line with other broadband programs administered by the U.S. Treasury,” Orlando said. “These changes will make it easier for small co-ops to participate in the program while maintaining program integrity.”