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Can Rescue Funds Give America the Broadband It Really Wants?

Billions of dollars in the American Rescue Plan could be used to close the persistent digital divide in urban and rural communities. But how can these investments be “future-proof”?

View of cell phone tower and forests in West Virginia.
A cell phone tower in West Virginia. Stimulus funds could help bring rural broadband speeds up to urban standards. (Heap/Shutterstock)
Transportation systems emptied during the pandemic, and Americans diverged to the “information highway” to access jobs, entertainment, food, health information, education, vaccination appointments and other government services. For those without reliable Internet access, basic resources were suddenly out of reach. The American Rescue Plan (ARP) includes billions that can be used to address this inequity.

How many Americans lack a broadband connection? In December 2020, Microsoft reported that more than 157 million people, 48 percent of the population, do not use the Internet at broadband speeds. In January 2021, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) said that 14.5 million lack broadband access.

The difficulty of bringing the true picture into focus is the result of inconsistent definitions for both “broadband” and “access.” The FCC’s 2015 definition of broadband — 25 Mbps download speed and at least 3 Mbps upload speed — is generally considered to be obsolete, and well below the standard for future-ready broadband infrastructure.
Information about coverage provided to the FCC by Internet service providers is not cross-checked. An entire census block can be designated as covered in FCC maps if any household at all in it has high-speed access. Higher speeds may be “available” to residents at price tiers not affordable to many households. 
FCC estimates of the percentage of Americans with broadband access differ significantly from Microsoft data regarding the percentage of people actually using the Internet at broadband speeds. Maps such as this have been the primary source of information about coverage, but FCC is now working to improve the quality of the data used to create them.

The Broadband Data Act, passed in March 2020, requires the FCC to collect better, more granular data about coverage, to allow the public to challenge its maps and to find ways to deal with providers that “knowingly or recklessly” submit inaccurate data. In July, and again in December, the FCC adopted rules for this process.

Better data can help jurisdictions make better use of federal funds, and the past year has made it clear that progress can’t wait. “Broadband connectivity is part of the DNA of every resilient community,” says Francella Ochillo, the executive director of Next Century Cities, a nonprofit working to help government leaders in more than 200 municipalities expand connectivity.

Communities that were best able to weather pandemic stresses and meet the needs of learners, home-based workers, small businesses, the unemployed and the sick had one thing in common, she says. “Large percentages of their population were able to be online seamlessly.” 

Funding Sources 

Money for broadband is available from multiple sources in the ARP. The $7.171 billion in the Emergency Connectivity Fund can be used to reimburse schools and libraries that provide free broadband service to students and patrons, including Wi-Fi hot spots that they can check out and take home. Qualified expenses in the nearly $10 billion Homeowner Assistance Fund include payment assistance for broadband Internet access.

Broadband infrastructure is among the allowed uses of $130 billion in the ARP’s Fiscal Recovery Fund for local governments and counties, as well as the $130.2 billion Fiscal Recovery Fund and a $10 billion Capital Projects Fund that will be distributed to states, territories and tribal governments.

State and local governments have freedom to decide how to use these recovery funds to meet local needs, but broadband services are intertwined with anything they undertake to get the economy back on its feet, says Kathryn de Wit, project manager for the Broadband Access Initiative at the Pew Charitable Trusts.

Data-rich platforms are now the norm for everything from health care and education to workforce training, job applications and filling out forms to access government services, she says. “Any of the priorities that policymakers have are going to come back to high-speed connection.” 

These data demands exist no matter where citizens are connecting. “During the pandemic, we saw a 40 percent increase in the use of networks across the country,” says Shirley Bloomfield, chief executive officer of NTCA, an association representing 850 telecommunications companies that provide broadband access to rural America. 

More than Hardware

It’s important that this infusion of federal funds be spent with an eye toward future-proof infrastructure, says Ochillo. “We need to be make sure that we’re building networks that are still competitive five and 10 years from now.” 

For Ochillo and others this means an emphasis on fiber optics and speeds of at least 100 Mbps for both upload and download. Uploads have been expanding wildly on rural networks, says Bloomfield. “I’m sending a document, my kid is sending back homework, a college student is sending an exam back to the university — all those things take capacity to upload, not just to receive.”

The success of broadband infrastructure also depends on human contact, including education and outreach to ensure members of the community know how to get online and have sufficient technology literacy to engage with the opportunities that come with high-speed connections, says de Wit. “It’s not as simple as flipping a switch and all of a sudden, households are signing up.”

State programs can lead this community engagement, she says, but need funding and capacity. 

There are other non-equipment investments with significant value. Ochillo would hope to see municipalities investing in local connectivity assessments and feasibility studies. It’s not the norm to have anyone from government acting to coordinate all aspects of broadband deployment among the various stakeholders, which include providers, community-based groups, families, educators and local businesses. 

The COVID-era transition to telework, now permanent to a greater or lesser extent for many organizations, ought to figure in the long-term infrastructure plans for rural areas, says Bloomfield. NTCA companies cover 35 percent of the country’s landmass, and the combination of fiber-optic connections and natural beauty could contribute to a rural renaissance. 

“There’s nothing more fun than driving and coming up to a big billboard that says you’re entering a smart rural community,” she says.

Bringing broadband to disadvantaged communities has the potential to fuel other kinds of regrowth, from making up educational losses to re-employment and upskilling workers. In order to realize this potential, planning and spending must address affordability.

Resources to Dream

“I suppose the silver lining of this awful situation, at least in our policy area, is that there's a lot less debate whether everyone needs an Internet connection,” says De Wit.

Ochillo finds it unfortunate that it took a year of COVID-19 for people to start asking the right questions about broadband, and she’s worried that local officials are still having a hard time taking a long view.

“A lot of them don't have the resources to dream,” she says. “You're constantly in a reactive posture where you're just trying to stop the bad things from happening, rather than affirmatively being able to say, we want every single person in our municipality to be able to connect and this is what that looks like.”

The recent stimulus funds have created an opportunity to look forward, she says, to think about how broadband fits into communities like other infrastructure. 

More resources for dreaming may be on the way. The president’s $2 trillion American Jobs Plan includes $100 billion for universal broadband access. 
Carl Smith is a senior staff writer for Governing and covers a broad range of issues affecting states and localities. He can be reached at or on Twitter at @governingwriter.
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