50 Ways to Love (not Leave) Your Anchor Institutions June 16, 2023
By John Windhausen, Executive Director, SHLB Coalition
States have an enormous opportunity to award BEAD broadband funding in the next year or so. Many observers say that states must connect unserved and underserved households first, and if money is left over, then they will connect the anchor institutions. [See Note 1] But this simplified interpretation is not supported by the statute as a whole.
The Infrastructure, Investment, and Jobs Act (referred to as “The Act" through this post) admittedly contains one provision that gives top priority to connecting unserved and underserved households, placing anchor institutions third in line. But this one provision is not the be-all and end-all of the legislation. The entire statute shows that legislators recognized a prominent role for anchor institutions.
In fact, there are at least seven reasons [See Note 2] why states should consider connecting anchor institutions early in the broadband deployment process rather than at the tail end.
1. The Act “strongly encourages” applicants to serve anchor institutions. The following language appears on page 7 of NTIA’s BEAD Notice of Funding Opportunity (NOFO):
“Eligible Entities [States] that demonstrate they will be able to ensure service to all unserved and underserved locations will be free to propose plans that use remaining funds in a wide variety of ways, but NTIA underscores its strong preference that Eligible Entities also ensure deployment of gigabit connections to community anchor institutions such as libraries and community centers that lack such connectivity.” (emphasis added)
Anchor institutions are more than just an afterthought. If a state ignores anchors, it will not be in compliance with the BEAD NOFO’s “strong preference” for connecting anchors.
2. The Act does not say that states must connect unserved/underserved households before connecting anchors. It says that states must have a plan to connect unserved and underserved households before connecting anchors. This is a significant distinction, as states can and should include connecting anchors in the same plan as a way to reach unserved and underserved households.
3. From a practical perspective, most communities have a mix of unserved, underserved households and anchor institutions in the same region. It would be unwise and economically inefficient to connect all eligible households and bypass the anchors in that same community. Bringing workers and installation equipment to connect homes to fiber or wireless, only to bring them back two years later to connect eligible anchors in the same community, would be extremely wasteful.
4. There may be good reason to connect eligible anchors first, not last. A reasonable, economically-efficient, and sustainable build-out strategy is to deploy multi-strand fiber to the anchor institutions first, and then build off of that high-capacity connection with wireless or fiber to connect the surrounding unserved/underserved homes. In other words, anchor institutions can serve as “jumping off points” from which to extend broadband to the home. This strategy may not be feasible in all communities, depending on the location and configuration, but this approach could provide service to unserved/underserved households more quickly than deploying fiber to each and every remote home and then building backhaul afterward.
5. The BEAD NOFO says that at least 80% of the locations in a project area must include unserved locations. [See Note 3] That means up to 20% of the locations do not have to be unserved/underserved homes; they could be anchor institutions.
6. While last-mile connections are the main focus, the BEAD NOFO says that funding may be used for middle-mile connections if necessary to bring internet service to homes. In some cases, building middle-mile networks directly to the anchor institutions may be necessary to ensure that backhaul is brought closer to the unserved/underserved homes.
7. Finally, deploying broadband to anchors and homes simultaneously may encourage more Internet Service Providers (ISPs) to participate in the program. Anchor institutions can be “anchor tenants” on the network, helping to pay ongoing fees to support the costs of operating the network. More ISPs are likely to bid to provide service in more rural (and often more expensive) areas if they have more customers on the network. The more anchors on the network, the more revenue for the ISP, and the more likely the network will be sustainable in the long run.
Congress was wise to fold various policy objectives into the Act. This holistic approach was not only important to obtain the necessary votes for enactment. It was also helpful to balance several needs. Network builders need the flexibility to deploy broadband facilities to homes and anchors in the most cost-efficient manner.
Connecting anchor institutions with multi-gigabit connectivity from the get-go will often be instrumental to connecting the most unserved/underserved homes at the lowest possible cost.
Note 1: One state broadband official was heard to say “By the time I finish connecting the unserved/underserved households, I won’t have any money left to connect the anchor institutions.” Perhaps if that state connects the anchors at the same time as the homes, it will be less expensive and the state will be more likely to connect all the homes and the anchors.
Note 2: Okay, I lied about “50”.
Note 3: On p. 14, the BEAD NOFO states “A ‘project’ may constitute a single unserved or underserved broadband-serviceable location, or a grouping of broadband-serviceable locations in which not less than 80 percent of broadband-serviceable locations served by the project are unserved locations or underserved locations.”
Closing the Digital Divide One Anchor Institution At A Time.