Biden administration official offers tips for tapping broadband funds
Andy Berke, a senior broadband advisor, spoke to state and local officials about $45 billion in pending federal money to expand high-speed internet service.
Andy Berke, the former mayor of Chattanooga, Tennessee, and now a senior broadband advisor in the Biden administration, has some advice for local officials who want to expand internet service in their communities.
They should get to know the lead person in their state who is overseeing billions of dollars in federal infrastructure spending aimed at expanding broadband service. “Virtually every state has a broadband coordinator,” Berke said during the annual NewDEAL Ideas Summit, a meeting of progressive state and local officials.
“You can help your constituents if you’re tight with that person,” he said.
Berke’s comments come as the National Telecommunications and Information Administration this month opened up $45 billion in funding for broadband projects available through the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act.
States have until July 18 to notify NTIA that they plan to apply for the money. They can also request up to $5 million in planning funds.
Berke said that so far 38 states have submitted notices or have said they will seek funding. After receiving planning dollars, states will have 270 days to submit a five-year action plan on how they intend to use the broadband money.
“The president has said every American will have access to reliable high-speed internet,” he said. “And we had a bipartisan group of legislators who put their money where their mouths are and funded this program.”
At the start of the Biden administration last year, Berke was named special representative for broadband at NTIA, which is part of the Commerce Department.
As mayor, Berke helped spearhead a program giving free high-speed internet to local families with children eligible for free or reduced lunch. Chattanooga’s decision to lay its own fiber earlier in the 2000s through its electric utility, was transformative for the city, he said.
“It brought new jobs to what has traditionally been a very old economy,” he said.
Berke acknowledged, though, that expanding high-speed internet across the country will involve challenges—including coming up with accurate maps of where service is currently available. The Federal Communications Commission plans to release maps this fall showing broadband speeds at every parcel in the nation to guide future projects.
A previous version of the maps measured whether broadband was available by census tract. This led to a situation where even if only one home in a neighborhood had service the entire area appeared connected.
“To put it kindly, they weren’t very helpful,” Berke said of the old maps.
He said cities should be ready to verify whether the updated maps are accurate and to file challenges if they see that they are not.
“This is going to be an ongoing process,” Berke noted.
He added that the Commerce Department is considering how to avoid supply chain problems that could arise with many states trying to build more fiber at the same time.
In addition to rising material costs, “we’re going to need workers to dig trenches,” he told the state and local officials, flagging another concern at a time when the labor market is tight. “I’d be thinking about that right now if I were in your shoes.”
Kery Murakami is a senior reporter for Route Fifty.
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