Leveraging Federal Broadband Funding to Solve the Digital Divide – A Step-by-Step Guide

June 29, 2021 | Ed Barrett

As communities begin to envision their new, post-pandemic normal, a key part of most strategies is the development of new approaches to improve broadband services. Once viewed as primarily a nice-to-have for entertainment purposes, the Coronavirus shutdown has made reliable high-speed internet critical to people working from home, attending school through remote learning, and conducting telemedicine appointments with their doctors.

Map of broadband access in the United States.

The National Telecommunications and Information Agency (NTIA) recently released a new map on June 17 that shows just how pervasive the digital divide is in America. Unlike the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) map that relies on incumbent-provided speeds and shows most of America as covered under its current 25/3 speed definition, the NTIA map shows great swaths of America that are not truly receiving services at this level.

HR Green’s recent blog, “The Race to Broadband Infrastructure – America’s Next Challenge” discussed a number of key strategies to help communities prepare themselves to meet these new needs. In this blog, we discussed various funding methods that are either becoming available or will become available in the coming months to help address the digital divide in the country.

Improved Funding Alternatives Are Available Today to Start the Journey

Additional guidance was recently released by the Treasury Department on the interim program rules for the ARPA funding. These grants to counties and communities include broadband as an allowable expense, and many of our clients are currently deploying these funds to begin the process of creating “shovel-ready” projects that can be quickly deployed to meet unaddressed community needs.

The Treasury Department published clarifying FAQs last week related to the use of ARPA funding to expand broadband services. The full document can be found HERE. In it, there are several notable clarifications that describe how public agencies might leverage federal relief dollars to drive broadband improvement. Let’s discuss the steps you can take to leverage funding.

  • Step 1: Understand your Eligibility for Funding. The original guidance indicated that funds could be used in areas where “reliable 25/3” speeds were not present. The new FAQ clarifies that this term is open to broad interpretation and specifically allows funds for overbuilding of any areas served by DSL (copper) or DOCSIS 2.0 cable technology. It also clarifies that data is not limited to state/federal maps (which are notoriously inaccurate based on incumbent data and methodology) but can include the results of interviews, surveys, etc. We believe the NTIA map shows a clear path to contest traditionally incorrect FCC maps used to define eligible areas.
  • Step 2: Quantify Middle Mile Network Needs. The new FAQ clarifies that ARPA funds can be used to establish middle-mile networks if the end goal is to facilitate end-user connectivity. For many counties, inexpensive access to backhaul is a key barrier to the completion of last-mile broadband networks to homes and businesses.
  • Step 3: Create Master Plans to Become Shovel Ready. Recent guidance also has indicated that ARPA funds can be used to develop master plans and feasibility studies related to broadband as it includes planning and studies as qualified expenses. Conducting a feasibility study or broadband master plan now arms your community with data you need to move to “shovel ready” status for ARPA or for federal broadband stimulus being considered in the current Congress.

Beyond ARPA funding, on June 24, Biden reached an agreement with the Senate to fund $65 Billion (yes, with a very large B!) in broadband expansion. Importantly, the Administration compared the broadband expansion plan to the electrification of the country and pushes not just private sector funding, but also makes broadband grants available to governmental entities and cooperatives. While the final form of the legislation is pending, we have heard from the Hill that these could take the form of federal grants.

Enhanced Community Today for Funding Tomorrow?

We believe the most important first step is the creation of a Broadband Master Plan or Feasibility Study. Studying current conditions, creating preliminary designs and associated costs and financial feasibility will allow you to come to the grant table with “shovel ready” projects and can help to improve your chances of receiving federal funds. By using ARPA money already awarded, you can enhance your ability to position for the incoming flood of federal infrastructure dollars to create lasting change in your community.

Let’s have a conversation to help quantify your community’s needs, establish a vision to guide a path forward, and create a Master Plan that achieves your future needs. Communities that not only adopt but deploy broadband infrastructure resources to solve connectivity challenges are at a significant advantage to those who merely hope the private sector will work towards the same goals.

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