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The U.S. Department of Treasury, tasked with writing the rules on how state and local governments can spend various federal relief funds made available for broadband expansion by the American Rescue Plan, recently released the guidelines [pdf] governing the Capital Projects Fund (CPF) — a $10 billion pot of money available to states, territories, and Tribal governments [pdf] to confront the need for improved Internet connectivity exposed during the pandemic.
Compared to when Treasury released rules governing the State and Local Fiscal Recovery Funds earlier this year, this go ‘round brought cheers instead of jeers from community broadband advocates, as we are seeing federal broadband policy break new ground.
The flexibility the Capital Projects Fund gives state and local governments to decide how to spend the relief funds is what broadband advocates are most excited about. CPF applicants are able to use the money in creative ways to respond to critical needs in their community laid bare by the Covid-19 pandemic, as long as the resulting project directly enables remote work, education, and health monitoring.
Update, 1/22/22: Common Sense Media has released an easy-to-read, comprehensive guide to federal broadband funding opportunities. Read it here.
In response to the Covid-19 pandemic, Congress and the Biden Administration passed two federal stimulus relief packages with historic levels of funding for programs devoted to advancing digital equity – the American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) and the Consolidated Appropriations Act (CAA).
In early August, legislators in the U.S. Senate passed the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act, a $1.2 trillion infrastructure package which continues many of the federal programs started by previous relief packages and includes $65 billion more for expanding high-speed Internet infrastructure and connectivity. Members of Congress returned from their summer break on September 20th and U.S. House Representatives are expected to vote on the infrastructure relief bill, which enjoys bipartisan support, on September 30th.
This guide consolidates the different funding opportunities made available through various relief packages to assist communities interested in accessing federal funds to expand broadband infrastructure and digital inclusion services. It updates ILSR’s Community Guide to Broadband Funding released in April of 2021, which describes programs established under ARPA and CAA in more detail, provides additional resources and answers FAQs.
Important upcoming deadlines are bolded throughout this guide.
Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act – Pending
The Power of Anchor Institutions in Community Connectivity - Episode 464 of the Community Broadband Bits Podcast
On this episode of the Community Broadband Bits podcast, Christopher Mitchell talks with John Windhausen, Executive Director of the Schools, Health, Libraries and Broadband Coalition (SHLB) and Alicja Johnson, SHLB Communication Manager. The nonprofit advocates for anchor institutions to be at the table when communities are considering building municipal fiber networks. This is because these institutions are not only the cornerstones of healthy communities, but also well positioned as gateways for bringing reliable broadband to every household.
Windhausen and Johnson cover the wide array of specific projects SHLB has going on, from work on the Emergency Connectivity Fund, to telehealth efforts, to larger picture efforts they participate in, specifically, the future of spectrum and its role in expanding wireless networks across the country.
We want your feedback and suggestions for the show-please e-mail us or leave a comment below.
Listen to other episodes here or view all episodes in our index. See other podcasts from the Institute for Local Self-Reliance here.
Thanks to Arne Huseby for the music. The song is Warm Duck Shuffle and is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution (3.0) license.
Since it was first introduced in Congress in March, the Community Broadband Act of 2021 has gained widespread support from over 45 organizations representing local governments, public utilities, racial equity groups, private industry, and citizen advocates.
The legislation -- introduced by U.S. Representatives Anna Eshoo, Jared Golden, and U.S. Senator Cory Booker -- would authorize local communities to build and maintain their own Internet infrastructure by prohibiting laws in 17 states that ban or limit the ability of state, regional, and local governments to build broadband networks and provide Internet services.
The Act also overturns state laws that restrict electric cooperatives' ability to provide Internet services, as well as laws that restrain public agencies from entering into public-private partnerships.
States have started to remove some long-standing barriers to public broadband on their own. In the last year, state lawmakers in both Arkansas and Washington removed significant barriers to municipal broadband networks, as high-quality Internet with upload speeds sufficient for remote work, distance learning, telehealth, and other online civic and cultural engagement has become essential.
Community broadband networks offer a path to connect the unconnected to next-generation networks. State barriers have contributed to the lack of competition in the broadband market and most communities will not soon gain access without public investments or, at the very least, the plausible threat of community broadband.
The Many Benefits of Publicly-Owned Networks
Patience and persistence can be used to describe what made northern Virginia’s Orange County Broadband Authority successful in turning their middle-mile network into a Fiber-to-the-Home (FTTH) network. While the journey started more than five years ago, today the authority is connecting 20 customers a day with the goal of connecting 4,000 customers by the end of the calendar year.
Crews will be connecting users to the county-owned FTTH network, FiberLync, in three phases, each requiring between 10-12 months to complete. Phase 1 will pass approximately 4,000 households, phase 2 about 2,500 households, and phase 3 about 1,000.
The funding for these phases will primarily come from bonds set aside as part of the county’s capital improvement plan and will cover up to $15.5 million of the projects’ costs. The bonds will be paid back through FiberLync revenue.
Years in the Making
Bringing FTTH connectivity to the residents of Orange County (pop. 36,000) has been a goal since the Orange County Broadband Authority was created in 2016. The major driver for the authority was addressing the lack of broadband in the rural parts of the county. Residents in certain parts of the county have long been left with speeds under the FCC’s broadband definition of 25/3 Mbps (Megabits per second), and others have been entirely unconnected.
In 2017, the county worked with Orange County Public Schools to build the middle-mile network connecting district facilities as well as critical county facilities using E-rate federal funds. More than $1.1 million in E-rate funds were used to help connect the schools, accounting for 80 percent of the total project cost. The county and Orange County Public Schools shared the remaining costs of deploying extra capacity for future use.
Closing the homework gap has been a top priority for Federal Communications Commission (FCC) acting Chair Jessica Rosenworcel. She has a long track record advocating for Wi-Fi-enabled school buses, lamenting viral images of school children completing homework in fast food parking lots, and making the case that no child should be left offline. At the onset of the pandemic, she pledged to use her influence at the agency to fight to increase the flexibility of the E-Rate program, saying “every option needs to be on the table.”
When the American Rescue Plan Act established the Emergency Connectivity Fund (ECF) in March, a $7 billion program to connect students and library patrons to the Internet at off-campus locations, Rosenworcel had an opportunity to follow through on those promises. She could have seized the moment to steer the program in the direction of allowing schools and libraries to build, own, and operate their own school and community networks (what the federal government refers to as self-provisioned networks). Many schools serving areas with poorly connected students already do this, but without much help from the E-rate program.
But when the rules on how to spend the money were finalized on May 10th, the FCC’s Report and Order declared that schools and libraries could not use Connectivity Funds to build self-provisioned networks, but instead could only use the funds to purchase Wi-Fi hotspots, modems, routers, and connected devices, such as laptop computers and tablets. The one exception in which schools and libraries can use Connectivity Funds to build self-provisioned networks is in “areas where no service is available for purchase,” based on data self-reported by private ISPs.
Federal Government Devotes Billions to Internet Access: A Community Guide to Current Broadband Funding
In the American Rescue Plan Act, Congress and the Biden Administration included a multi-billion dollar appropriation to help expand high-speed Internet access. This guide offers an overview of the different funding opportunities for communities interested in expanding broadband services. As application deadlines vary in some cases and other money must be spent within certain time frames, it is critical for states, municipalities, community organizations, and Tribal governments to start planning initiatives now.
It’s also worth emphasizing that 18 states still put localities at a disadvantage when it comes to spending anticipated funding effectively by preserving laws that interfere with community investment in broadband infrastructure. Much of this money could also be funneled for other purposes due to a lack of good plans and community engagement.
The amount of funding flowing into communities is unprecedented. Localities should prepare to spend funds on needed, futureproof infrastructure. This is an historic, once-in-a-lifetime investment in Internet infrastructure and communities who develop a clear, actionable plan and are as ready as possible once the money starts flowing will prosper.
If you’re a homeowner looking for assistance paying your Internet bill…look to the Emergency Broadband Benefit Program or Homeowner’s Assistance Fund.
If you’re an HBCU or Minority-serving institution looking to expand Internet access to your students, or if you’re a minority business enterprise or nonprofit organization in the surrounding community...look to the Connecting Minority Communities Pilot Program.
if you’re a Tribal government, Tribal organization, or Tribal college or university, including native Hawaiian organizations, education programs and native corporations…look to the Tribal Broadband Connectivity Program.
If you’re a city interested in partaking in a public-private partnership…look to the Promote Broadband Expansion Grant Program.
If you’re a school or library whose main concern is obtaining remote Internet access devices...look to the Emergency Connectivity Fund.
Federal Aid Directly To States, Counties, Localities and Territories
The streaks of paint and tiny white flags popping up across Block Island are not signs of surrender. They are signs of progress. The popular summer tourist destination, nine miles off the coast of Rhode Island, is on the verge of building a Fiber-to-the-Home (FTTH) network, bringing gig-speed Internet connectivity to the more than 1,000 residents who call the community home.
The markers on residents’ property are plot points along the construction route as network planners prepare to start building the last-mile portion at the end of March.
On Feb. 4, BroadbandBI launched its website, announcing that the construction materials had finally arrived on the Island and signaling the start of construction would soon be underway.
Sertex, the company partnering with the town to build the network, is anticipating deploying more than 60 miles of fiber to deliver high-speed Internet service directly to homes and businesses in New Shoreham, the only town on Block Island.
Pop the Champagne
Residents there unanimously voted in July 2020 to pay for the construction of the island-wide network with $8 million in bonds. Approval for the project was so overwhelming that when the vote took place the Block Island School gymnasium erupted with cheers and applause.
Currently, there are still only three options for Internet service on the Island: Verizon DSL, satellite, and mobile services with the fastest speed advertised at 35 Megabits per second (Mbps). And for a period of time, it seemed as if residents were doomed to those tortoise-like speeds forever.
In 2014, the Block Island Times captured experiences from its readers after an especially frustrating summer of spotty service. One reader, Jessica Fischburg wrote, “We have Verizon and live down in Franklin Swamp. No cell service. Our Internet is painfully slow unless you wake up super early. We have no choice but to disconnect when we come out to the island!”
The Answer Was Blowing in the Wind
HiLight — Hillsboro, Oregon’s (pop. 105,000) citywide Fiber-to-the-Home (FTTH) network — has officially launched and begun connecting its first subscribers. After five years of consideration and planning, it’s an exciting moment, with hundreds of homes and businesses brought online over the last few months. Over the next seven years, at least $28 million will be put towards the rollout, bringing the municipal network to tens of thousands of locations across the city.
Hillsboro sits just outside of Portland, and has been looking for better connectivity options for years. A large proportion of its population is comprised of tech workers and residents with advanced degrees; the city, in fact, anchors the state’s Silicon Forest, so named for the group of technology firms employing tens of thousands of workers across three Intel campuses as well as operations by Oracle, Salesforce, Epson, and Synopsis. A citywide fiber network serves to provide competition and capacity to keep them in the area:
Hillsboro is the tallest tree in the Silicon Forest and the center of Oregon’s high-tech cluster. With an affordable high-speed network, Hillsboro’s homegrown talent — our students and entrepreneurs — will be better positioned to lead the world in innovating for the future. Hillsboro will continue to attract and retain talent and be a hub for innovation.
But Hillsboro also faces a stark digital divide fueled by economic inequality, and bridging it has been one of the city council’s (and now the network’s) main agenda items. This has driven the project’s second focus: bringing affordable, high-quality access to economically vulnerable residents stuck with no quality options today. It’s why the city has introduced one of the fastest low-cost access program we’ve seen established by any broadband network in the United States, with qualifying families getting access to symmetrical gigabit service for $10/month.
Putting Glass in the Ground
DayNet, a new Internet utility emerging in Dayton, Texas, is looking to lasso a broadband-minded boss for this small East Texas city of approximately 7,200, about 37 miles east of Houston.
Applications are being accepted for a Broadband Manager/Head Network Engineer to oversee the business and technical operations of DayNet as the city has begun construction of a citywide Fiber-to-the-Home (FTTH) network.
In addition to hiring a Broadband Manager/Head Network engineer, the city is banking on the project to “increase competition and choice . . . while having a positive impact on economic development, education, and the technology amenities that are available to citizens and businesses.”
Good Credit, Better Broadband
To finance the construction, the Dayton City Council approved a $13.7 million bond issuance at a 2.56% interest rate, thanks to the city’s rising credit rating. Network construction began at the start of the year. And when the network is fully built, which is expected to be complete by 2023, 110 miles of fiber will criss-cross the city’s 11 square miles, passing every home, business, and anchor institution in Dayton.