While watered down from a planned $100 billion spend, the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act allocated $65 billion to providing broadband to all. That figure still represented the single largest investment in US broadband infrastructure in history, and industry group FBA-Fiber Broadband Association said last year the bill recognised “broadband is as much a part of the country’s critical infrastructure as roads and bridges”.

Despite the historic $42.5 billion investment in the Broadband Equity, Access, and Deployment programme, the bulk of the funds are yet to be drawn. The old-fashioned reason for the slow rollout of a very modern infrastructure? Maps.

The infrastructure law requires the Federal Communications Commission to release location-based mapping of broadband availability and the deployment of BEAD funding cannot be made until those are completed. Even once this is deemed complete, further delays are still anticipated.

“The FCC will release initial maps in November and those will then be subject to a challenge process, which could take several months beyond that,” says Ajit Pai, partner at the digital infrastructure-focused Searchlight Capital Partners and chairman of the FCC between January 2017 and January 2020. “From what I’m hearing from various state broadband directors, they don’t expect this funding to be distributed to states until 2023.”

“Their mapping system and data was pretty inadequate going into this,” says Chad Crank, managing director at Grain Management, another communications infrastructure-focused manager. “They knew that and they knew they were going to spend some money on that.”

Pai certainly agrees with Crank’s assertions and outlines how he tried to ready the regulator for such an exercise when it was under his leadership.

“When I came into office,” explains Pai, “what we found was some of the standards that the FCC had adopted for the [FCC’s 2017] Connect America Fund, the agency would treat a census block as being served if one household within that block was served. We immediately realised we needed to change that.

“From 2019 until the end of my time at the FCC, I repeatedly asked Congress for funding to get that process started. They allocated that funding with weeks left of my tenure. My successor has started that process, which has taken longer than people thought it would.”

Challenges will likely be framed around the maps favouring incumbents and claims they can serve the underserved areas. When this is resolved, states can begin working with private players to roll out the funds, where, as a result of previous funding initiatives, some states will be more ready than others, with Crank highlighting Nebraska and Arkansas as examples, the latter playing host to Grain’s portfolio company Ritter Communications.

“Those two have been leaders in this, establishing a broadband commission, in some cases given out state dollars and already have a system in place to administer them,” says Crank. “Some states are further behind that and will take a while to get going. That will put the states at the front end of all of that to start distributing the money about mid-next year at the earliest.”

The March 2020 CARES Act allocated $13.5 billion in broadband funding to help those in need during covid-19 lockdowns. Ritter’s experience of securing about $70 million in grants from the Arkansas government through CARES gives it an advantage when it comes to securing eventual IIJA funding, according to Crank. The Arkansas government typically funded up to 75 percent of a project’s total cost.

“We’ve had good examples with Ritter where we’ve looked at building FTTH within a community where we couldn’t make the math work,” says Crank. “The cost of building the fibre wouldn’t justify that investment so we were able to secure grants and go into these towns and augment that cost.”

Securing the funds is one thing, but both Crank and Pai have a further worry; the workforce needed to build it. Fibre rollouts across North America and Europe suffer from similar issues and it remains a significant impediment in providing broadband to all. “There are not so many people who are able to do that work,” says Pai. “I expect everyone to face the same issues.”

Amid the $1.2 trillion spend, the ‘J’ for jobs in the IIJA will be equally critical – as will other similarly more human aspects such as supply chain and permitting issues – in bringing success to rare bipartisan unity. A failure here will subject another American generation to sub-par infrastructure.