Millions in broadband funding could be further delayed after some companies and board members raised concerns about duplicating efforts in areas of Oklahoma already served by internet service providers.
The Oklahoma Broadband Office, which is overseeing more than $1.1 billion in federal funding to expand broadband throughout the state, said it will study the issue after receiving questions about applications under the state’s share of American Rescue Plan Act funding.
Lawmakers last year gave the office $382 million to upgrade and expand broadband services under that round of federal coronavirus relief funding. Oklahoma this year received another $797 million in federal funds under the Broadband Equity Access and Deployment program.
The rollout of the state’s broadband expansion has been beset by delays over mapping existing coverage and concerns about supply costs and enough workers to build the expansion projects. The Broadband Office searched for months for a permanent director before Mike Sanders, a former lawmaker from Kingfisher, took over in March at the recommendation of Republican Gov. Kevin Stitt.
Dozens of companies submitted applications to the Legislature in 2021 and 2022 for broadband using ARPA funding, including AT&T Oklahoma, Dobson Fiber and several electric cooperatives. The money for the ARPA projects must be allocated by the end of 2024 and spent by the end of 2026.
The Broadband Office set up a 10-day window, which started Aug. 4, for existing companies to challenge those ARPA project applications.
But a representative of Altice USA, whose subsidiary Optimum provides service to communities like Weatherford and Poteau, told the Broadband Governing Board the applications weren’t detailed enough to make challenges. They lacked addresses and geographic data, he said.
“We have major concerns with the ongoing ARPA process,” Altice’s Johnny Moyer said during public comments at Tuesday’s board meeting. “There is a significant portion of our network that is deemed served by the FCC that would be overbuilt. That goes against the spirit of this program.”
The Broadband Office had not received any formal notices of ARPA challenges as of Wednesday, spokesman Tim Allen said.
In Tuesday’s meeting, board member Katy Evans Boren said she wanted additional advice on whether the Broadband Office was complying with the law as it contemplates ARPA challenges and decides on grants under the other federal funding programs.
“It’s causing me to have some unsure footing,” said Boren, an appointee of Senate Pro Tempore Greg Treat. “I want to make sure we as a board are given all information, with experts coming to talk to us, the attorney general to give us advice.”
Sanders, without giving details, said his team is reevaluating the process.
“There is nobody here who wants this very important process to be correct than myself and my staff,” Sanders said.
Earlier this month, the Broadband Office released an online map for state residents to check their broadband coverage availability and speed. A separate map, produced by the Federal Communications Commission, will be used to approve grants under the BEAD program.
Paul Monies has been a reporter with Oklahoma Watch since 2017 and covers state agencies and public health. Contact him at (571) 319-3289 or email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @pmonies.