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Federal Largesse, Meet Local Government Administrative Capacity

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ASPA as an organization.

By Patrick Mulhearn
June 19, 2023

With an imminent tranche of new Federal broadband infrastructure funds—and recent investments in digital equity planning—state governments are positioned to deploy billions of dollars in support to local governments. But are the locals prepared to spend it?

The rapid move online in response to COVID-19 seems quaint now that life has for the most part returned to normal: we eat out again, go to the movies and nary a mask to be seen. But our dependence on data in our personal and professional lives has only become more acute: remote work isn’t going away, online education is still a thing and delivery apps have only proliferated—not to mention governments’ increased reliance on e-government to deliver services to their communities.

The need for reliable, high-capacity data infrastructure, a means to reliably and affordably access this utility and an understanding of how to use this resource comprise what’s known as the “Digital Divide”—a policy problem addressed by parts of the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act (IIJA) of 2021. The Broadband Equity, Access, and Deployment (BEAD) Program and Digital Equity Act (DEA) are two programs of the IIJA that invest in communities to narrow that divide by improving access to high-speed internet, subsidizing costs to individuals and families and training people how to engage with online content.

While these federal funds invest in a host of new projects and programs, local capacity to implement and build will rely upon an already-attenuated public administration staff. If there aren’t enough civil engineers to review a wave of permit applications, how can new infrastructure projects be efficiently deployed? And what happens should funding deadlines expire with funds unspent due to overtaxed administrative processes?

Infrastructure Support

While ISPs are gearing up to tap these funds for infrastructure projects nationwide, some local permit processing agencies will find themselves ill-prepared for the influx of project plans. 

Internal permitting processes vary by jurisdiction, but common amongst all of them is the need to review technical documents for safety and compatibility with local conditions. This work requires technical experts and many of the jurisdictions and areas that will most benefit from broadband infrastructure investment are already stretched to capacity. Federal planning funds to help prepare such communities are being allocated now, and the states have responded with various capacity grants and technical assistance to facilitate permitting process and planning.

California, for example, has launched a one-stop online resource to support local government planning and released a local government permitting playbook which details a constellation of policy options to for broadband infrastructure projects. The state also allocated grant funding to build local government administrative capacity.

Colorado has implemented a similar locally-focused initiative through their Department of Local Affairs. This program provides infrastructure and planning grants to local governments for regional planning, develop public-private partnerships and identify community needs.

North Carolina is coordinating information and funding through their Division of Broadband and Digital Equity and providing direct administrative support applying for these new programs. The State also provides a one-stop, online technical-assistance resource to help local governments increase permitting capacity and local coordination with the state transportation department for telecommunications infrastructure projects.

Digital Equity Support

The local governments that are stretched the thinnest for right-of-way permitting similarly serve communities that lack sufficient organizations and agencies that are trained and capable of delivering digital skills and literacy programs. Despite the new grant support currently being deployed to develop statewide digital inclusion, locals will struggle to expend the funds before they expire without local partners and stakeholders to provide capacity and engagement with covered communities.

In early 2024, though, the Federal government will delegate $1.44 billion to state governments to help develop capacity to implement the an on-going digital equity planning process. This effort will need to rapidly knit together local government agencies with community-based organizations and other local service providers to implement the plans being developed by the states. But while the state planning efforts require local stakeholder engagement, what happens in areas without such organizations?

The AARP has designed an online course for seniors called Senior Planet that teaches everything from crypto to how to host a Zoom meeting either in-person or online. Libraries are well-situated to connect with people and the American Library Association has extensive resources available to support digital inclusion efforts, with some libraries hosting their own digital literacy classes. The Federal funding is designed to help community-based organizations such as these to take on state-driven digital inclusion efforts.

Problems Remain

One of the main sources of direct investment in Digital Equity, the Affordable Connectivity Program (ACP), is anticipated to run dry in 2024; while this is a popular program Congress seems unlikely to continue funding it. And while the nearly $80 billion being made available will close a lot of infrastructure gaps, it is still insufficient for ubiquitous access to high-speed internet connections.

It is vitally important that community leaders directly engage with State and Federal policy-makers to ensure that their local needs are clearly addressed in planning processes, but without a long-term public financial commitment to digital equity our efforts will ultimately fall short.

Author: Patrick Mulhearn is the Director of Public Policy & Community Engagement at Ting Fiber Internet. He previously worked in state and local government on infrastructure and telecommunications policy implementation, followed by a stint consulting state and local governments on how to close the Digital Divide. He can be reached at [email protected]

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