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Stimulus Funds Help Virginia, Vermont Build Broadband Equity

Billions of federal dollars for broadband came with the stipulation that they benefit underserved populations. New projects that link last-mile access with affordability are paving the way for universal Internet service.

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Steel cable is installed in rural Minnesota to support a fiber-optic line.
(Bruce Bisping/MCT/TNS)
The pandemic has forced a recognition that families without a home Internet connection are much like earlier generations who lacked roads or electricity. Today, connectivity means access to jobs, food, family, education, health services and public relief — and the citizens most likely to be in distress are also most likely to be digital have-nots.

It’s difficult to know exactly how many Americans still need home access. The terms “coverage” and “access” are not synonyms. As noted in a new GAO report, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) estimates of the number of households with broadband service have overstated reality, counting an entire census block as “served” if even one location in the block has access to a provider. (The 2020 Broadband DATA Act tasked FCC with developing a more precise and granular picture.)

In a survey conducted by the Pew Research Center at the beginning of 2021, more than 40 percent of households with incomes of less than $30,000 said they did not have home broadband. Just over three-fourths of this segment had smartphones, but despite claims from some that this constitutes “access,” a citizen with a cellphone is not on a level playing field when it comes to job searching, accessing vaccinations or pandemic benefits, or remote work and study.

In another Pew survey, just seven in 10 rural Americans said they had a broadband connection at home. A report from the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies looked specifically at 152 counties in the Black rural South, finding that 38 percent of Black residents did not have home access, compared to 23 percent of whites living in the region and 22 percent of Blacks nationwide.

The American Rescue Plan (ARP) included hundreds of billions of dollars for which broadband infrastructure was among the allowed uses. Infrastructure is not the only issue for those on the wrong side of the digital divide, however. Many who might have providers in their area cannot afford home service. In the months since ARP funds were approved, jurisdictions have embarked on projects to address both needs.

“While state broadband grant programs have historically focused on expanding ‘last mile’ access in unserved areas, recent new federal spending — coupled with the flexibility with which those funds may be spent — have allowed states to address other aspects of the challenge of universal broadband, like making access affordable,” says Anna Read, a senior officer on the Broadband Access Initiative at The Pew Charitable Trusts. “This opportunity has led to some new and creative projects.”
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Freedman Point is a mixed-use housing development in Hopewell, Va., that includes 68 affordable apartment units. Residents and students now have access to public Wi-Fi in their homes and throughout the complex. (City of Hopewell)

An Internet Utility


With a population approaching 23,000, Hopewell, Va., is one of the smaller cities in the Tri-Cities region. It is located about 15 miles southeast of Richmond and according to 2020 census data, nearly 24 percent of its residents live in poverty.

Hopewell is investing nearly $4 million in CARES Act funding granted to it by the state to provide broadband services at no cost to more than 2,000 residents of subsidized and affordable housing. It is also creating hundreds of free Wi-Fi access spots throughout the city.

Nearly half of those living in Hopewell are renters, says Concetta Manker, director of information technology for the city. Even before relief funds were a possibility, city officials had begun to develop plans to address broadband inequality, but the work came with a big price tag. During pandemic school closures, Hopewell brought Internet buses from its school system to neighborhoods where students were not likely to be able to get online.

CARES funds made it possible to move from planning to reality. The first phase of the work brought public Wi-Fi to downtown Hopewell — to city offices, libraries, parks and businesses — through access points mounted on both government and private buildings. This work utilized fiber that already was in place but the next phase, extending broadband service out into the community, required additional infrastructure.

Eventually, more than 700 households will have broadband access through Wi-Fi networks in their buildings that meet the current FCC definition of broadband (25 Mbps download and 3 Mbps upload). Installations have already been completed in four out of six targeted public and affordable housing structures throughout the city, with access points mounted on roofs, breezeways or exterior walls.

City officials decided not to bring the Internet inside households because of the cost and complexity. “Every person does not have an access point inside their unit,” says Manker. “We didn’t want to take on the responsibility of being like a cable provider; we don’t have the manpower to go inside of every home when there’s an issue.”

The CARES funds will cover five years of free service in low-income housing units and at hot spots. The City Council decided to form a broadband authority that would enable Hopewell to act as an Internet service provider. Over the next five years it will evaluate whether it makes more sense to continue to provide municipal Wi-Fi for free or to begin to charge for it.

“There are a lot of questions we have to ask,” says Manker. “How stable is the connection? How many people does it reach? We have to make sure that the community is really saturated.”

While the CARES funds made it possible to move forward, the need to spend them also accelerated timelines, according to Manker. More time to study challenges in the communities that were to be served, whether tree density or the positions of buildings, before the work begun might have been helpful, she says. “It’s been a moving target, but we’ve been able to be successful, and we have a lot of kids benefiting as a result.”

The nearby city of Portsmouth, Va., is also working to help citizens overcome economic barriers to broadband access, with a slightly different approach to delivery.
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Proof of Concept


Daniel Jones joined the city of Portsmouth’s department of information technology as chief information officer in 2016. Portsmouth, with more than 95,000 residents is part of a metroplex of about 17 cities and localities that is home to 1.7 million people.

You wouldn’t expect an urban area of such density to have Internet trouble, he says. “But the majority of those 1.7 million people have only one provider to choose from, and if a citizen is not happy with their provider, or their service, they have no alternatives.”

To address this, the city began a capital improvement project to create a municipal and community broadband network. As Hopewell had done, it formed a broadband authority which, under state law, allowed it to provide Internet connectivity to citizens. The new network would also provide enhanced connectivity for the service delivery aspects of government operations, including the public housing authority.

“We knew we had a problem when we got reports of citizens sitting outside of our libraries and public buildings just so they could use the Wi-Fi, because they did not have connectivity at home,” says Jones. “It was discouraging, but we knew that we could do something to close that gap.”

Broadband became even more important when COVID-19 hit, and when the state allocated stimulus funds for it, the city proposed a project to provide free broadband to more than 1,000 public housing units. As in Hopewell, the project also included more public Wi-Fi hot spots, bringing the total to more than 300. The $750,000 project was fully funded, and the work is expected to be complete within weeks.

In this case, the Wi-Fi access points are not mounted on public housing structures, but outside them. Jones expects users to have at least a 25 Mbps by 25 Mbps connection.

In addition to enabling students to keep up with remote schoolwork, the city hopes that this new connectivity will be a springboard for telehealth and telemedicine services in disadvantaged neighborhoods. The state has plans to shift benefits administration more and more online, says Jones, and as this transition occurs, the free broadband will enable those who are struggling to continue to access state aid.

Jones sees this project as a proof of concept for the city’s municipal broadband network, extending it from the city’s buildings to its neighborhoods. At present, it intends to provide free service to those living in subsidized housing indefinitely. While there’s no intention for the municipal service to replace commercial providers, says Jones, “if you have nothing else, this is a way to be connected.”
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In Vermont, small communities are working together to increase broadband access through a system of Communications Union Districts. (Vt. Department of Public Service)

Broadband Cooperatives


Christine Hallquist has been working to bring broadband to rural Vermont since 2003, when she worked at the Vermont Electric Cooperative (VEC). Rural electric cooperatives provide power to about 56 percent of the nation’s land mass. She sees the cooperative model of sharing resources as a smart way to bring broadband to rural communities.

Hallquist worked with the state Legislature to pursue this idea, and in 2018 legislation was passed that established a framework through which two or more towns could join together as a municipal entity called a Communications Union District (CUD) to share resources and build communications infrastructure together. She resigned as CEO of the VEC in 2018 and ran for governor, making broadband access as a central issue of her campaign.

Although she lost the race for governor, in July 2021 her opponent, Phil Scott, appointed her executive director of the newly established Vermont Community Broadband Board (VCBB). From this position, she is overseeing the efforts of CUDs in the state.

Stimulus money has made it possible to increase the pace of this work. “It was fortuitous that the money came along,” says Hallquist. “It would have been a long road, probably 10 or 15 years before we would be able to get broadband to rural Vermont without it — like any other part of rural America, the economic model just doesn’t exist.”

Thanks to CARES money, it’s conceivable that every Vermonter could be connected to fiber-optic cable within five years, she says, though factors including competition for material and resources could make this hard to accomplish. Prepurchasing materials for the CUDs is a top priority for the VCBB, along with developing labor resources to offset worker shortages made worse by COVID-19. Nearly 400 volunteer board members are working throughout the state to make broadband happen, raising money locally and looking for grants and funding opportunities.

Building electric or telecommunications infrastructure is a long-term process and the nonprofit nature of cooperatives enables them to sidestep the pressure of quarterly results or the notion that set numbers of customers per mile are required before service can be offered. Areas of high-density use can help subsidize the cost of delivering services to low-density areas. Rural users will have to pay for services, but because the infrastructure will be largely funded through grants rather than debt financing, customer charges within CUDs are expected to be 30 percent lower than existing providers.

The CUD legislation urges public-private partnerships, and all of them have developed agreements with private providers. The idea is the CUD owns the infrastructure and the private partner operates it and provides services. This means two important things: First, that CUDs don’t have to have the technical expertise that operations require and second, that the private provider is accountable to the community and can be replaced if they fail to meet their contractual obligations.

All of this reflects a political climate in Vermont that Hallquist sees as a model that could benefit the rest of the country. “I supported Phil Scott in 2016, I ran against him in 2018 and then he appointed me to this position,” she says. “We don’t have ugly politics in Vermont, we work together for the common good.”
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In July, Gov. Ralph Northam announced that Virginia would invest $700 million in ARP funding to achieve universal broadband access by 2024.
(L. Todd Spencer/The Virginian-Pilot/TNS)

Disconnected from the World


The infrastructure bill before the House in Congress includes $65 billion for broadband, with $42.5 billion directed toward underserved Americans and more than $12 billion in subsidies to help low-income users pay for access.

The projects in Virginia and Vermont have been energized by stimulus funds, but they share a recognition that in this age, access is sufficiently important to deserve whatever support might be needed to sustain it over the long run.

Hallquist is quick to emphasize that she is not a socialist. Americans dislike the word socialism, but the fact is that we socialize our roads, our bridges and education. We should do the same with broadband infrastructure, she says.

“Korea has the best telecommunications in the world, and they've got the best free market as well. What they've socialized is the cost of their telecommunications backbone.”

Daniel Jones puts it another way. “Broadband is just as important as water or sewer or electric nowadays, because if you don't have broadband, you're basically disconnected from the entire world,” he says. “There comes a time when the public and the private sector have to work together for the betterment of the citizens and not play one off against the other.”

Editor's Note: This article was updated to reflect that nearly half of residents living in Hopewell are renters; a previous version mistakenly wrote that nearly 70 percent of residents were renters.
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 carl.smith@governing.com or on Twitter at @governingwriter.
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