Navigating a 'generational moment' in broadband funding is no small feat

NASHVILLE, Tenn. – Fiber Connect 2022 – The telecom industry and the communities service providers operate in are living in unprecedented times with access to $65 billion in broadband infrastructure funds, but how best to utilize those funds is the question keeping everyone up at night.

While this is a "generational moment in terms of federal funding," navigating the process of distributing the funds in coordination with local and state governments won't be simple, said Chris Altomari, VP of broadband network product management for AT&T, during a panel at the event.

"It's incredibly exciting and opportunistic, but it's equally complicated and challenging," he added.

Chris Altomari, VP of broadband network product management for AT&T.  (Image by: Kelsey Ziser, Light Reading.)
Chris Altomari, VP of broadband network product management for AT&T.
(Image by: Kelsey Ziser, Light Reading.)

One challenge is staffing – many of the state broadband offices tasked with distributing the federal funds have as few as two employees. Josh Hildebrandt, director of broadband initiatives for the Georgia Technology Authority, noted on a separate panel that he and his supervisor Jessica Simmons are currently the only fulltime employees for Georgia's broadband office.

However, Hildebrandt noted that the Georgia broadband team plans to work together with other state agencies, consultants and eventually add a few more employees to the team.

Federal funding distribution for broadband services also has to be a "community-lead process," said Peggy Schaffer, executive director of the ConnectMaine Authority.

"It's a significant ramp up [in funding] and that means that communities and providers have to be ready to go. That's part of the work we're doing now and part of what the BEAD program requires," Schaffer told Light Reading in an interview at the event. The Broadband, Equity, Access, and Deployment (BEAD) program is the mechanism the US government is using to distribute funds at a state level.

Service providers also have an opportunity to step in and assist communities in determining how to utilize new federal funding. On the panel with Altomari, Trent Fellers, VP and head of state government affairs with Windstream, said the SP has historically worked with counties to ensure they're aware of grant funding from state broadband programs, and assess their willingness to work with service providers in launching new network services.

"When communities are engaged in the conversation, they understand the importance of affordability and universal service … it's very personal [for them] and it's important that communities have a say in who does their infrastructure or if they do it," Schaffer told Light Reading. "They need to have those options and community planning is how that all starts."

But each community is unique. Jimmy Todd, CEO and GM of Nex-Tech and a member of the panel with AT&T's Altomari, said there's no consistency from one county to another in how municipalities operate.

Navigating the nuances across different municipalities requires that service providers start by listening and assessing what a community's priorities are, and if they're trying to address underserved areas first, Altomari told Light Reading in an interview. Following that, AT&T works to educate those communities on their options, such as the benefits of high-speed broadband fiber to address bandwidth intensive applications, he added.

Ultimately, "these are infrastructure commitments that they're making that should stand the test of time," he said.

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