Having access to broadband has become a necessity of modern life. “This is a critical service. This is a lifeline,” said City of Duluth, Minnesota Mayor Emily Larson in a panel discussion in the opening session of the 2023 National League of Cities (NLC) Congressional City Conference. “To address access to broadband, we built out a grassroots organizing campaign: focus groups, meetings with businesses, talking with parents, doing the work of local government. Amplifying the voice of every single resident.”
As businesses, schools, and offices shut down during the COVID-19 pandemic, the gap widened between those with easy access to internet use and those without. According to the Pew Research Center, a nonpartisan think tank, 60 percent of broadband users with lower incomes often or sometimes experience connectivity issues, and 46 percent expressed concern about paying for the service. Because of these issues a phenomenon emerged called the “homework gap”; 37 percent of low-income children reported completing homework on a cellphone, 25 percent were not able to complete schoolwork because they lacked access to a home computer, and 23 percent reported having to use public Wi-Fi to complete their assignments due to lack of connection at home. For the millions of school-age children without access to broadband, this gap is the “cruelest part of the digital divide,” a term used by the National Education Association (NEA).
Following the passing of the American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) bill in 2021, which provided $1.9 trillion in federal stimulus to aid in public health and economic recovery, broadband has climbed to the top of the list of critical issues facing local government leaders. Approximately 5.7 percent of ARPA funds have been allocated by state, local, and Tribal governments towards expanding broadband access and infrastructure – a sum totaling more than $8.6 billion. These funds are in addition to the $65 billion investment in high-speed internet access in the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law, of which more than $25 million has already been spent or committed, according to whitehouse.gov in a 2022 release.
According to the aforementioned NLC panel, also featuring Scott Woods, a former senior broadband program specialist for the National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA), NLC President and Mayor of Tacoma, Washington Victoria Woodards, and Mayor Ras Baraka of Newark, New Jersey, here are a few grants and tips available to help you secure funds for broadband expansion:
Signed into law in 2021, the IIJA, aka Bipartisan Infrastructure Law (BIL) included a $65 billion investment to help close the digital divide.
IIJA set aside $42.45 billion for broadband deployment, mapping, and adoption projects. Approximately $100 million in funding goes directly to each state but is intended for local communities. Applications were due July 18, 2022.
Eligible uses include:
“We heard stories of children sitting in a Subway parking lot to gain internet access and do their homework,” said Mayor Larson, who reported that only 6 percent of the 86,000 residents in Duluth have access to high-speed fiber. “In 2021, we did a community-based survey. Ninety-eight percent of respondents were looking for a municipal system.”
Image courtesy of Fabio Principe on Adobe Stock
$1.93 billion from the IIJA is available for grants, direct loans, or a combination to local governments, states, or any other related organization. The goal of the program is to build infrastructure and equipment that provides reliable high-speed internet in rural America.
Eligible uses include:
“A good mayor knows they’re not the expert on every topic and that they need to surround themselves with experts. Don’t be afraid to admit you don’t know it all. Build a team. Invest in a consultant or a study,” said Mayor Woodards of the complexity regarding broadband expansion and availability.
Comprised of three programs that fund and promote digital inclusion and equity for all, the Digital Equity Act totals $2.75 billion. This is a state-driven grant program and the deadline for application has passed. However, according to the implementation timeline, 2023 is the year slated for state-level planning. There’s still time to advocate for your community at the state level.
$60 million: Available through the State Digital Equity Planning Grant Program which assists states in developing digital equity plans.
$1.44 billion: Grant program for states, territories, and Tribal governments to fund and implement digital equity plans.
$1.25 billion: Competitive program which funds annual grant programs for five years to implement digital equity projects.
Applications are due in July 2023.
Advice from Woods during the panel: “come armed with actionable data in terms of status of connectivity in your community – business customers, vulnerable populations, etc. You have to stand up to get funding at the state level.”