Monday, November 30, 2020

RFP Issued for Grant Administrator to Fund Puerto Rico Broadband Expansion

By on October 21, 2020

Aafaf: $400 million to be set aside to close digital divide in remote areas 

SAN JUAN — The government of Puerto Rico announced Wednesday that it was issuing a request for proposals (RFP) to hire a grant administrator to manage a broadband infrastructure fund that aims to close the digital divide on the island, particularly outside the San Juan metropolitan area. 

The selected fund administrator “will undertake a baseline assessment of the existing state of broadband provision in Puerto Rico,” Omar J. Marrero, executive director of the Fiscal Agency and Financial Advisory Authority (Aafaf by its Spanish acronym), said in a press release.   

Based on this assessment, the administrator will establish a grant program for broadband service providers pursuant to a broadband infrastructure fund administration agreement, said Marrero, stressing that the fund seeks to accelerate growth in broadband access throughout Puerto Rico, particularly in unserved and underserved areas in the island’s interior mountainous region. 

“Without a doubt, broadband provides numerous socio-economic benefits to communities and individuals, including enabling remote education, increasing business productivity and providing access to better healthcare,” Marrero said in the press release, which states that the RFPdescribes the procurement process in detail. “In our administration we want to provide enhanced opportunities for the people of Puerto Rico through better and more equal access to education, healthcare, and information.” 

The deadline to submit proposals is November 4, 2020. The RFP is available on Aaaf’s website, www.aafaf.pr.gov.  

The agency chief stressed that many jurisdictions are making investments in and promoting broadband services as part of “their initiatives to transform their networks into more strategic assets,” not only benefiting the government, the private sector and the public in general, but also driving economic growth in rural areas.  

“Broadband infrastructure is essential in our modern economy. Providing the necessary resources will translate into more competitive businesses and enhanced prosperity for our communities,” said Marrero, who is also the commonwealth’s chief financial officer. “In rural areas, broadband support is even more important because it allows the expansion of services to the citizenry in a manner never seen before, particularly in the areas of security, health and education, as well as in other economic sectors related to agriculture.” 

As fiscal agent and financial advisor of commonwealth government entities, Aafaf monitors compliance with the certified budget and takes part in the implementation of the certified fiscal plan (CFP), which are approved by Puerto Rico’s Financial Oversight & Management Board (FOMB)  pursuant to the federal Puerto Rico Oversight, Management and Economic Stability Act (Promesa).  

The CFP for fiscal year 2021 allocates $400 million over three years to incentivize private-sector investments in broadband build-out and to improve access to faster speed offerings in underserved areas. 

“These investments should help overcome barriers to broadband expansion and ensure that all residents and enterprises in Puerto Rico benefit from this capacity,” the fiscal plan states. “The goal is to set up funds to support expansion efforts in unserved and underserved areas through grant programs that fund a portion of the cost of deployment in these communities.” 

During the recent COVID-19 pandemic, internet access has become even more important to residents’ livelihoods, the CFP states.  

“Across the U.S., telemedicine is becoming more widespread as a way to deliver health services safely,” the fiscal plan says. “As public and private school systems alike move to distance learning models, students who do not have access to reliable, high speed internet are unable to participate – and therefore fall farther behind.” 

Citing the 2015 Puerto Rico Broadband Strategic Assessment report, the CFP states that while there was some growth in broadband deployment in Puerto Rico between 2011 and 2014, driven by an “aggressive” capacity upgrade of cable networks, as well as the deployment of fiber by other broadband providers, critical broadband infrastructure gaps still exist, particularly across rural areas of the island. As of 2014, the most recent year for which data is available), while close to 99 percent of urban households across Puerto Rico had access to speeds of at least 10 megabits per second (Mbps) download and 1.5 Mbps, this was true for only about 66 percent of rural households. 

“Broadband adoption figures across Puerto Rico also reveal a persistent gap among certain demographic groups,” the fiscal plan states. “Broadband non-adopters in Puerto Rico were generally low-income groups, senior citizens, people with disabilities, and/or individuals with less education, which mirrors demographic trends on the U.S. mainland and elsewhere. These gaps have possibly widened since Hurricane Maria, particularly in the mountainous region of Puerto Rico, where topography has hindered replacement of damaged infrastructure.”   

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