Funding fiber broadband: The path to growing communities

The Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act (IIJA) presents communities with the ability to build broadband infrastructure that has been shown to deliver substantial and long-lasting economic benefits by creating jobs and attracting businesses as well as improving the quality of life for the people who live there. Local leaders need to be proactive and engaged in working with state broadband offices and community stakeholders as the process of planning these networks begins.

A decade ago, the city of Chattanooga, Tenn., secured federal funding to become the first “Gigabit city,” building a fiber broadband network to every household and business in town. An independent study conducted by the University of Tennessee said this investment directly supported the creation and retention of more than 9,500 jobs in Hamilton County, accounting for about 40 percent of all jobs created during the time period, with $2.6 billion in total economic benefits delivered by the fiber network to date.

Recent studies sponsored by the Fiber Broadband Association (FBA) have shown similar high-impact and lasting economic benefits in different areas across the country. Douglas County, Oregon’s fiber network generates $28 million in revenue or savings each year, providing reduced costs to city government, better education and health care, and affordable high-speed broadband for local businesses. Westfield, Mass., has realized more than $88 million annually in job-related benefits from the installation of its fiber network, which has created more than 4,600 work-from-home jobs for a city of 41,000 people, brought businesses into the area, provided broadband to the public school system and increased home property values.

Communities around the country will have the opportunity to see similar job creation and other benefits through the IIJA’s Broadband Equity, Access and Development (BEAD) program, with $42.5 billion on the table for projects to build the broadband networks of tomorrow for unserved and underserved areas. States and territories are now in the process of submitting BEAD funding applications to NTIA to invest in their communities and close the digital divide.

Once states receive NTIA planning money, they will have 270 days to create and submit a five-year plan on how they will go about the process of evaluating community broadband proposals and distributing funds to winning projects. Now is the time for local officials to make sure their respective state broadband offices understand the unique needs of their communities by providing insight and input.

Representatives from unserved and underserved areas will need to stand up and participate in all parts of the broadband grant process by providing and verifying data of where and what type of broadband is currently available, what specific and special needs and challenges exist in the community for the deployment of high-speed broadband and clearing the road of regulatory obstacles where needed.

Permitting is one area where local jurisdictions can clear the way for faster, more affordable broadband deployment. Some states have streamlined or simplified ordinances and the permitting process to make it easier for broadband companies to conduct construction and affordably place fiber on utility poles. Local communities have also been known to lower or waive permit fees to facilitate broadband projects. The local officials and stakeholders need to work with their elected representatives in their state governments to advocate for changes to legislation where appropriate and necessary.

One model for local-state coordination is Georgia’s Broadband Ready Community certification. Local communities document efforts with the Georgia Department of Economic Development to reduce obstacles to broadband infrastructure investment by adopting a local comprehensive plan for broadband services development and a Broadband Model Ordinance, providing a clear and consistent environment for local municipalities to respond to funding opportunities and build responsive public-private partnerships.

With $42.5 billion in broadband funding through BEAD and additional billions of dollars available through federal and state programs, communities around the nation have a once-in-a-generation opportunity to build networks that will provide economic and social dividends for decades to come. But to get there, it will require local communities to actively engage with state and federal officials to make sure the right investments are made to benefit everyone.

Gary Bolton serves as president and CEO of the Fiber Broadband Association—the largest trade association in the Americas dedicated to all-fiber-optic broadband. With more than three decades in the telecom industry, Bolton joined the Fiber Broadband Association as president and CEO in 2020 after serving on the association’s board as vice chairman, treasurer and vice chairs of public policy and marketing committees. He can be reached at [email protected].

Funding fiber broadband: The path to growing communities