ILSR’s Community Broadband Networks Initiative Director Christopher Mitchell recently joined Drew Clark, Editor and Publisher of Broadband Breakfast, for a live discussion centered on the “Investment Implications of a Federal Broadband Infrastructure Bill.”
During the discussion, Christopher breaks down the various pots of money the federal government has dedicated to expanding Internet infrastructure and access to date. He points to the shortcomings of current federal programs, among which are provisions that set aside funds in the American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) for the Emergency Broadband Benefit and the Emergency Connectivity Fund going to short-term, incumbent-friendly solutions.
Christopher noted that while the Emergency Broadband Benefit has helped income eligible households by providing $50 to $75 a month subsidies for home Internet subscriptions, it leaves uncertain what the future holds for these communities when the funds run out. Similarly, he points to restrictions placed on the Emergency Connectivity Fund, which limit the ability of schools and libraries to use the funds to build their own networks. Throughout the discussion, Chris maintains that public dollars should be spent on more sustainable, long-term solutions.
Christopher and Drew also discuss what states are planning to do with the windfall from the federal government by way of the Coronavirus Capital Projects Fund. Each state is receiving a minimum of $100 million for broadband projects enabling remote work, education, and health monitoring. Mitchell highlights the plans Maryland and California developed to use the incoming federal funds as leading examples in contrast to Idaho which is set to funnel the money entirely to private monopoly providers.
“What we are seeing is Congress and states having dumped a ton of money into temporary programs and done almost nothing to develop sustainable solutions,” Chris says.
Looking forward, Christopher makes the point that the total investment amount settled on in the Biden Administration’s infrastructure proposal, known as The American Jobs Plan - whether it’s $65 billion or more, as was initially proposed - is less important than getting the spending rules right. One aspect of the rules, Mitchell says, is that federal broadband funds should give recipients a longer time to spend the money than what has been the norm with previous federal subsidies. On the other hand, he says that money for digital inclusion efforts “needs to hit the streets today.”
Listen to the Broadband Breakfast Live Online episode at BroadbandBreakfast.com, or below.
Note: Since this discussion occurred, the U.S Treasury has provided new guidance on the Interim Final Rules governing ARPA’s Local Fiscal Recovery Fund, clarifying the large amount of discretion that local governments have in determining where it is appropriate to invest in broadband infrastructure.