Community Broadband Legislation Roundup – June 7, 2021

Snapshot

Michigan broadband package repeals law prohibiting state grants from going to government entities

Montana Legislature duplicates federal limitations against schools and librarie self-constructing networks

U.S. House Republicans bill would give USDA authority over rural broadband, in place of FCC 

The State Scene 

Michigan

Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer issued an executive directive on Wednesday establishing the Michigan High-Speed Internet (MIHI) Office, a new state office tasked with developing a strategy to make high-speed Internet more accessible to Michiganders. 

Gov. Whitmer has argued that more than $2.5 billion in potential economic benefit is left unrealized each year due to a lack of Internet access across the state. MIHI will be housed inside the state’s Department of Labor and Economic Opportunity (LEO). Speaking of the new office, LEO Acting Director Susan Corbin said, “We need to make major investments to support digital inclusion and this office will be focused on leveraging every dollar available through the American Recovery Plan and other federal programs,” reports WILX.

Michigan lawmakers are moving to answer Corbin’s call and recently proposed a $400 million one-time allocation of incoming federal relief funds to the newly created MIHI to work toward expanding access to broadband. With the funds, LEO would be tasked with maintaining a statewide broadband grant program, the Connecting Michigan Communities Broadband Grant. 

The legislative package [pdf] would allow the state to “award grant money to a governmental entity or educational institution or an affiliate or a public/private partnership, to own, purchase, construct, operate, or maintain a communications network.” The legislation calls for prioritizing projects that will provide discounted Internet service to low-income households and projects that “demonstrate collaboration to achieve community investment and economic development goals.”

The bill package would repeal Section 841 of Public Act 166 of 2020 [pdf], a law which prohibited broadband grants from being awarded to government entities and required grants to be awarded to areas reported to be unserved by existing ISPs. 

Montana

Montana lawmakers are duplicating federal limitations on the state level against schools and libraries using E-rate funds to self-provision, or construct their own, school and community networks. 

Montana Gov. Greg Gianforte recently signed an Act into law (H.B. 181) providing $1 million in state matching funds for federal E-rate funding. However, the Act specifically states that “none of the…matching funds may be used by schools for self-construction of their own networks.”

Many schools serving areas with poorly connected students have already acted to connect students to self-constructed networks, “extending free, basic wireless Internet access to the homes of students in the neighborhoods most in need,” reports New America [pdf]

In the process, many districts “determined that building their own community Wi-Fi network was the most cost-effective and sustainable long term way to address the steadily growing disadvantage suffered by students without access to broadband at home.”

This state legislation duplicates federal restrictions that favor funneling limited state and federal remote learning funds toward purchasing hotspots (which require paying costly monthly service fees to existing wireless service providers) to connect students at home, rather than using those funds for solutions that will operate sustainably into the future.

Gov. Gianforte also signed the ConnectMT Act (S.B. 297) into law, creating a state broadband grant program which will utilize state general fund and federal stimulus money to finance broadband expansion projects in underserved and unserved regions of the State.

The Act defines underserved regions as those which lack broadband service capable of delivering speeds of 100/20 Megabits per second (Mbps). Meanwhile, unserved regions are defined as areas in which 10 percent of broadband access points do not have access to Internet speeds of at least 25/10 Mbps. 

A separate measure signed into law (H.B. 632) allocates $275 million in federal COVID-19 relief funding to go towards the ConnectMT grant program. 

Under the program, local and Tribal governments in partnership with private ISPs will be eligible to apply for funding for broadband expansion projects, provided recipients commit to pay 20 percent of overall costs. The state of Montana would fund the remaining 80 percent of total costs. 

It may still be difficult for Montana’s cities and towns to embark on broadband projects, as state law restricts municipalities from providing Internet service in regions where a private Internet Service Provider offers any similar type of services. 

“Montana allows a city or town to act as an Internet Services Provider (ISP) only if no private ISP is available within the city or town’s jurisdiction; if the city or town provided services prior to July 1, 2001; or when providing advanced services that are not otherwise available from a private ISP within the city or town’s jurisdiction,” reports Baller Stokes & Lide [pdf].

Wisconsin 

Wisconsin Gov. Tony Evers is dedicating $100 million of incoming federal COVID-19 relief funds to broadband expansion grants distributed through the state’s Public Service Commission (PSC).

The grant program will be open for applications from June 1 to July 27, and additional details about the program will be announced next month. 

At present, it has been announced that the state grant funds are limited to construction projects proposing to build broadband networks in unserved and underserved areas of the state, regions where available Internet service does not meet the FCC’s minimum speed threshold of 25/3 Megabits per second (Mbps). 

Eligible projects must plan to deliver Internet services providing download and upload speeds of 100/100 Mbps, although applicants can offer 100/20 Mbps service in locations where geographic conditions make 100/100 infeasible. 

In past programs administered by PSC, applicants eligible to apply included private, public and nonprofit Internet Service Providers (ISPs). Telecommunications utilities have been eligible to apply to past programs, as well as public entities that have entered into a partnership with an eligible private entity or utility. 

Wisconsin’s Broadband Office utilizes mapping coverage data collected by the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), to determine which regions of the state are “unserved” and “underserved”. PSC recognizes that in some areas reported to be served with broadband according to the state broadband map, end-users may not experience the Internet speeds described. Though the state recognizes its flaws, the state broadband map continues to hold much weight in the process of deciding project eligibility. “The maps produced by the Broadband Office may overstate the extent of broadband availability in some areas as a result,” Wisconsin’s PSC has stated [pdf].

Connecticut 

Under a proposal from State Gov. Ned Lamont, Connecticut’s Public Utilities Regulatory Authority (PURA) would gain greater regulatory control over ISPs operating in the state.

Under the proposal, PURA “would have oversight over the handling of consumer complaints, could order expansions of infrastructure, and regulate the general operation of the providers,” the CT Examiner reports. The legislative proposal would also “set aside $2.95 million in 2022 and $2.85 million in 2023 to create broadband maps of the state.”

Iowa 

Gov. Kim Reynolds signed the Iowa State House’s budget proposal for Fiscal Year 2021 (H.B. 867), approving an allocation of $100 million to the Empower Rural Iowa Broadband Grant Fund

In January, Gov. Reynolds proposed investing $450 million over the next three years to expand Internet access in the state and called on lawmakers to allocate $150 million for the program in Fiscal Year 2021.

National News 

Broadband for Rural America Act

The Broadband for Rural America Act, proposed by U.S. House Republicans, would give the U.S. Department of Agriculture increased authority over expanding the availability of rural broadband, in place of the FCC. 

“The bill would authorize $3.7 billion per year for rural broadband programs, including the ReConnect Rural Broadband Program, the Middle Mile Broadband Program, and the Innovative Broadband Advancement Program,” reports Hoosier AD Today

Cooperatives, nonprofits, local and Tribal governments, and private companies are all eligible to apply for the USDA’s ReConnect Program. The legislation would establish 25/3 Mbps as the minimum threshold for new build outs, which is the minimum speed required of recipients of ReConnect funds. 

“The FCC’s had their chance, and they haven’t gotten it done,” said Georgia Rep. Austin Scott, reports KIWA radio.

Telecommunications Skilled Workforce Act and Advanced Technological Manufacturing Act

To bridge gaps in the tech workforce, the U.S. Senate Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation recently advanced bills focused on expanding education in Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM).

U.S. Senator John Thune introduced the Telecommunications Skilled Workforce Act, which would require the FCC “to establish a working group to address telecommunications workforce needs and establish and issue guidance on how states can meet the needs of their telecommunications workforce.”