States play a key role as federal broadband funding pours in

The Covid-19 pandemic sparked somewhat of a broadband revival, highlighting the importance of connectivity as citizens across the U.S. and the globe were forced to work, learn and play from home. It’s no surprise, then, that broadband funding has been pouring in from the federal government. The catch, of course, is that much of it is being allocated on the state level.

This is the case for two of the biggest federal funding pots on the table right now, the American Rescue Plan Act of 2021, which became law in March, and the yet-to-be-passed bipartisan infrastructure deal.

Kathryn de Wit, project director of the Broadband Access Initiative at Pew Charitable Trusts, told Fierce states are increasingly pursuing legislation to set aside “some allotment of incoming federal funds to support their ongoing broadband efforts.” While she noted the details of how much funding is allocated “may ultimately depend on the legislative oversight committees or decisions made by the governor” several states are planning to use federal funds for broadband deployments.

Designed as a $1.9 trillion Covid-19 relief package, the American Rescue Plan Act includes $350 billion in funding for state, local and Tribal governments, which can be spent – among other things – on broadband infrastructure at their discretion.

Rules for state and local funding call for broadband projects to deliver “service that reliably meets or exceeds symmetrical upload and download speeds of 100 Mbps.” In instances where this is not achievable due to “geography, topography or excessive costs,” projects delivering minimum speeds of 100 Mbps down and 20 Mbps up may be approved.

The American Rescue Plan Act also set aside an additional $10 billion in a Capital Projects Fund, which states, territories and Tribes can tap to fuel projects – like broadband infrastructure deployments – which directly enable work, education and health monitoring.

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In July, Virginia Governor Ralph Northam announced the state would use $700 million of the $4.3 billion awarded to it through the American Rescue Plan Act to accelerate a goal to deliver universal broadband to residents from 2028 to 2024.

De Wit pointed to Indiana as an example of another state earmarking federal funding for broadband projects. She noted in its fiscal year 2022 budget passed earlier this year, Indiana elected to use $250 million in federal funding from the American Rescue Plan Act to fuel broadband expansion grants.

California and Indiana’s efforts follow moves by several states last year to invest in broadband using funding received through the Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security (CARES) Act, which was signed into law in March 2020. For instance, Iowa dedicated $50 million in CARES support to broadband projects. And a report issued by Pew in November 2020 noted Delaware, Idaho, Kansas, Mississippi, New Hampshire and South Carolina all used CARES funding to establish emergency broadband initiatives.

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The bipartisan infrastructure deal, which was recently approved by the Senate and sent to the House of Representatives for consideration, is poised to deliver a fresh batch of cash to the states.

The $1.2 trillion infrastructure package includes $65 billion for broadband, with $42.45 billion set aside for a new Broadband Equity, Access and Deployment program focused on connecting un- and underserved areas; $1 billion dedicated to a grant program targeting middle mile infrastructure; and $14.2 billion allocated for an Affordable Connectivity subsidy program. 

Each of the 50 states would receive an initial minimum allocation of $100 million from the $42.45 billion pot, with an additional $100 million set to be divided equally among the U.S. Virgin Islands, Guam, American Samoa and the Northern Mariana Islands.

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Anna Read, senior officer for Pew’s Broadband Access Initiative, told Fierce the infusion of federal funding is good for state broadband programs, which have been getting more applications for assistance than they’ve been able to fund. But while the money will allow states to “move the needle more quickly,” she noted disbursing the funds “is a challenge”.

“States have been engaged in identifying areas that don’t have service, working with communities, providers and other partners, so there is that closer to the ground element of it,” she explained.

In May, Pew issued a report noting the most successful state programs incorporate a state-level broadband office with full-time staff alongside planning and technical support systems for local governments and well-funded grant programs for service providers.

While the federal funding will help with the latter, Read noted having an official broadband office with full-time staff is “operationally important” because it “creates a clear point of contact for broadband stakeholders” and can make it easier for communities and providers to connect to meet unserved needs. She added planning and technical support systems are also key to fill in resource gaps at the local level.

“Often if you’re looking at a rural, unserved area, you’re not necessarily looking at an area that has a lot of specialized positions in local government or a lot of general excess capacity to address some of these issues,” she said. “So the state planning grant or state technical assistance activities can provide support in engaging stakeholders, the local education element, building support for the program, identifying local goals, evaluating potential solutions in the area and then moving that forward.”