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The Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act: Local Government’s Shot at Broadband

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

By Patrick Mulhearn
January 20, 2022

Equity has become a fraught expression in U.S. politics—a condition that unfortunately colors our considerations for policy implementation and development.

While broader conversations about this can be found elsewhere, when specifically applied to access to high-speed internet connections, the term “equity” now has a comprehensive federal definition that encompasses a whole host of benefits that are attractive and useful, regardless of one’s politics.

The Infrastructure and Jobs Act of 2021

The Federal Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act (IIJA) has set out to advance overdue infrastructure investments in the United States and provides much-needed federal support for state and local governments to catch up on their long lists of road and bridge repairs—but also provides new assistance for public data infrastructure. The IIJA will make available $65 million to support states’ efforts to build infrastructure, provide devices, discount individuals’ broadband costs and promote digital literacy by providing direct support to local governments, public agencies and charitable trusts. This legislation both acknowledges local government’s role in providing direct services to communities, and that “infrastructure” should encompass affordability, literacy and devices to access that infrastructure.

And these are the four pillars of Digital Equity: access to infrastructure that can deliver true high-speed internet connections, the capability to pay for it, an understanding of how to navigate it and some way of connecting to it. Until COVID pushed everyone into a virtual world, broadband was considered in terms of economic impact and business development, and most jurisdictions considered their attendant policies and master plans in terms of economic impacts and general fund revenues.

After stories of children using the free Wi-Fi at fast food restaurants to participate in online learning—and after many millions of parents tried to navigate Zoom calls on the same network as their children—our understanding of the personal impacts of deficient data infrastructure has evolved. Broadband isn’t just an economic tool, but is now considered a social determinant of health. This new focus is important because according to one survey, a third of households don’t have broadband because they can’t afford it and an additional quarter lack access because it’s not available where they live.

Via the Digital Equity Act of 2021, the IIJA provides states with funds they can use to develop and implement digital equity plans, which will define current needs in the terms described above. Support for implementing these plans will follow, using the same revenue source. Also within the IIJA, is direct support for local governments and community anchor institutions to develop open-access, middle mile infrastructure through the Broadband Equity, Access, and Deployment (BEAD) Program.

Broadband For All—If We Act Now

There is a host of opportunity for all manner of impactful policy-making embedded in this legislation; but to be eligible for these funds it is critical that jurisdictions accurately describe their community’s demographics. This is because digital equity grant support will be focused on “covered populations”, which includes families meeting certain financial metrics, veterans and individuals with disabilities.

More complicated to measure and map will be individuals’ internet service speeds. The BEAD Program will prioritize support for projects that serve “unserved” and “underserved” locations: the IIJA defines “unserved” to be any location that can’t muster 25Mbps downloads, while “underserved” locations fall short of 100Mbps downloads.

Prior to last year, this connectivity data was self-reported by internet service providers and was thus often unreliable. While the FCC has recently reformed these data collection standards and verification processes to account for inaccuracies, the current datasets are based on reports from previous years—so better, granular data will be needed immediately for accurate community mapping.

There are many publicly available, free speed test tools that can be employed, and local governments working with community organizations should develop plans for distributing them broadly throughout the community—with a focus on areas of low broadband infrastructure investment or whose available connectivity speeds reported in the Form 477 data are below 100Mbps.

A great source of connectivity information can also reside within our school districts: they have been trying to educate student populations remotely for nearly two years now and know precisely which students can’t sufficiently connect to online learning activities. Because students are, for the most part, evenly distributed throughout a community, their experience trying to connect to the internet is an excellent proxy for overall community connectivity.

The time to act is now, though the federal government has until June to both develop an implementation strategy for these grant programs, and release a notice of funding opportunity to eligible entities. If a municipality is aware of areas that currently meet these new standards for “unserved” and “underserved”, it is vital that those areas be mapped in expectation of grant funding becoming available later this year or early next year.

Similarly, jurisdictions should begin mapping their communities according to the digital equity metrics outlined above. This is a more readily available suite of data, but will most likely need to be aggregated across public agency departments or gathered from community organizations.

The need is widespread, and every community will benefit from these investments.

Author: Patrick Mulhearn, MPA, is the director of broadband policy for CTC Technology & Energy, a public sector broadband consultancy. Prior to his work in the private sector, he was the policy director for a local government elected official in Santa Cruz, CA, where he focused primarily on policies relating to telecommunications and transportation infrastructure. He can be reached at [email protected]

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