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Puerto Rico gov’t waiting on $330M petition for broadband expansion

The Smart Island initiative seeks to improve internet access and digital literacy with BEAD funding.

The government of Puerto Rico is in “hurry up and wait mode” for the National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA) to decide on its petition for some $330 million in funds to launch a three-pronged broadband expansion program that would benefit low-income consumers as well as service providers.

The Puerto Rico “Smart Island” Broadband office submitted a final digital equity proposal in April under the NTIA’s Broadband Equity, Access and Deployment (BEAD) Program, which provides $42.4 billion to expand high-speed internet access by funding planning, infrastructure deployment and adoption programs in all 50 states, Washington D.C., Puerto Rico, the U.S. Virgin Islands, Guam, American Samoa, and the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands.

Michelle Cabiya, executive director of the Puerto Rico Broadband Program, told News is my Business the petition for funding through the BEAD program will cover several aspects of the island’s initiative — the launch of the Affordable Device and Partnership Program, infrastructure projects, and equity and access projects.

The most ambitious project included in the proposal submitted to the NTIA requires about $205 million to build out an underground conduit system to enable internet service providers to provide islandwide services using that infrastructure. That system is also designed to give the island resiliency in times of emergencies, she said.

“We had a lot of feedback from the ISPs on what’s the best way to enable that sort of construction, to make the project viable. That was great for us because we were able to modify the information that we included in that in the proposal to the NTIA,” Cabiya said, confirming that the Puerto Rican Telecommunications Alliance and Liberty Puerto Rico were among those who submitted comments.

The proposal also calls for directing $60 million for education, which includes aspects such as workforce development, as well as digital literacy and cybersecurity training workshops.

“We’re seeking to train everyday people. It doesn’t have to be people who have any sort of degree or technical expertise whatsoever. We’re hoping to generate about 2,500 jobs in the next five years because we have about 60% in the workforce in the telecommunications industry about to retire,” said Cabiya, who is in Kansas City this week participating in the National Governors Association Broadband Leaders Workshop.

Another prong of the BEAD proposal calls for allocating nearly $49 million to establish the Affordable Device & Partnership Program, which Cabiya said calls for establishing agreements with the private sector in Puerto Rico and the U.S. mainland to refurbish and sell used laptops at “affordable prices.”

“We don’t have a limit on the number of partners that we can have working with this,” she said. “We haven’t identified which ones are going to be chosen yet because we still haven’t received the approval for the proposal, but once we receive that approval, it’s all hands on deck because this is one of the Puerto Rico Broadband Program’s priority projects,” she said.

The Puerto Rico Broadband Program will use BEAD funding to support making devices available at some 150 technology centers across the island, for use by vulnerable populations.

Cabiya said a request for proposals will go out to recruit providers for the Affordable Device & Partnership Program once the NTIA gives the go-ahead on funding.

Although the NTIA has not made an official announcement, the expectation at the Kansas City gathering is that more approvals will be granted in the next two weeks. So far, the NTIA has approved the final proposals from eight states.

Aside from the NTIA funds, Puerto Rico has about $1 billion in local and federal monies destined to harden and expand the island’s broadband infrastructure and available technologies.

Author Details
Author Details
Business reporter with 30 years of experience writing for weekly and daily newspapers, as well as trade publications in Puerto Rico. My list of former employers includes Caribbean Business, The San Juan Star, and the Puerto Rico Daily Sun, among others. My areas of expertise include telecommunications, technology, retail, agriculture, tourism, banking and most other segments of Puerto Rico’s economy.

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