North Carolina Governor budgets $1.2 billion of Rescue Plan funds towards closing the digital divide
Vermont Senate includes private ISPs in what was a community-based solution to universal access
Alabama Governor approves $17 million in broadband grants, some to Comcast and Charter Spectrum
The State Scene
North Carolina Gov. Roy Cooper released a budget proposal last Wednesday that anticipates using $1.2 billion of incoming federal COVID-19 relief funds towards broadband infrastructure, affordability initiatives, and expanding digital literacy. With North Carolina set to receive a total of $5.7 billion in federal American Rescue Plan funds, Gov. Cooper is dedicating nearly one-fifth of the incoming relief to closing the digital divide.
Next, the State House, Senate, and the North Carolina General Assembly will create their proposals for how to spend the relief funding. Then, they'll have to rectify any differences. Each chamber's plans could look similar to the governor's or vastly different.
Gov. Cooper’s proposal specifically allocates [pdf]:
$600 million towards expanding broadband infrastructure, including: $350 million for the state’s existing last-mile grant program (GREAT grants), $150 million for competitive bidding which will allow county governments to leverage the funds for public-private partnerships, and $100 million towards stop gap solutions “to address local infrastructure needs and connect underserved households not likely to get fiber for three to four years.”
$420 million towards affordability initiatives which will subsidize low-income service plans.
$165 million for digital literacy, including: $40 million towards device support to provide computers to 96,000 households which currently lack them; $30 million towards break/fix services to replace devices for over 275,000 North Carolinians; and $95 million towards community-based digital literacy campaigns.
The plan aims to connect 100 percent of North Carolina households with children to high-speed Internet access by 2025, and anticipates the affordability initiatives in the proposed budget will provide 380,000 individuals with a $50/month subsidy for four years.
Although some of North Carolina’s counties will benefit from funds dedicated to infrastructure through a competitive bidding process, the state’s cities and towns will have limited ability to access the funds to build broadband infrastructure, as state laws restrict North Carolina municipalities from building and operating municipal broadband networks.
Only private Internet Service Providers (ISPs), including local cooperatives, are able to access GREAT grant funds, and the program has become increasingly difficult to access for small ISPs. In 2020, new rules were introduced to the program requiring that ISPs provide one of three pieces of evidence to qualify to receive funds.
According to Doug Dawson, President of CCG Consulting, to qualify for a GREAT grant ISPs must supply:
a letter or statements from a bank or other financial institution verifying total available cash or lines of credit meet or exceed the anticipated total project costs
a letter from the applicant’s Board of Director or investors guaranteeing the total project cost
letters from a verifiable third-party entity guaranteeing the total project cost
“The state is requiring an ISP to guarantee 100 percent of the cost of the project, including the portion of grant being supplied by the State,” reports Dawson. “Few ISPs are sitting on the free cash needed to make this guarantee.”
North Carolina’s towns and cities will likely be able to benefit from community-led digital equity initiatives and digital equity allies across the state of North Carolina should work to finalize plans in order to have a clear path to funding.
Meanwhile, an act that would allow North Carolina’s counties to provide Internet access on a wholesale basis, the County Broadband Authority Act, has stalled since being introduced in the State Senate on April 7.
The Vermont Senate voted unanimously to advance a broadband bill (H.B. 360) that will dedicate $150 million to expand high-speed Internet access.
The vote came after state lawmakers negotiated the final details of the legislation during a conference between legislators last Tuesday. The bill is expected to be sent to Vermont Gov. Phil Scott for approval once House lawmakers hold a vote to concur with Senate amendments.
The State House approved $150 million for the program in March, while the State Senate reduced that allocation to $100 million and promised to issue an additional $50 million for the program in the following year’s budget. During the conference last Tuesday, Vermont lawmakers came to an agreement to allot $150 million to expand Internet access in FY 2021.
The back-and-forth between lawmakers over how much to spend on broadband investments wasn’t the only thing Senate and House legislators disagreed on. Some State Senators have been fighting for private ISPs to be able to benefit from the funds, although when H.B. 360 was first introduced it was intended to be a funding bill that focused on expanding community broadband networks.
When Gov. Scott signs the bill it will create the Vermont Community Broadband Authority, a new state broadband office tasked with funding and organizing the deployment of high-speed Internet infrastructure between Vermont’s nine Communication Union Districts and their potential partners.
Before passing a version of the bill last Wednesday, the State Senate added a provision that would allow small private ISPs to access the funds, as long as they commit to build-out networks to all addresses in the regions they serve. The bill defines small providers as those that operate in no more than five Vermont counties, according to VTDigger.
Referencing the Senate amendment, State Rep. Laura Sibilia, I-Dover, said “We welcome their participation, but we’re getting it done with or without them.”
The provision conflicts with the legislation’s initial vision favoring publicly-owned networks. House members had said they wanted to avoid giving federal money directly to private providers, as private companies have avoided extending Fiber-to-the-Home service into the more rural areas of the state, reports Valley News.
Amendments made by the Vermont Senate also expand the membership of the Community Broadband Authority from three to five members.
Last week, Alabama Gov. Kay Ivey approved nearly $17 million in grants to electric and telephone cooperatives and private broadband providers to expand Internet access in the state.
Gov. Ivey awarded 36 grants from the Alabama Broadband Accessibility Fund, marking the largest allotment awarded to date in the state. Nearly half of the funds were awarded to private ISPs, which include big monopoly providers Comcast, Windstream and Spectrum. Together the three incumbent cable companies were awarded nearly $1.5 million in grants. (See all of the grant awards here.)
Though state lawmakers appear poised to work towards expanding Internet access, they continue to impose restrictions on municipal broadband networks and are using limited federal dollars to fund the project’s of private ISPs. This comes as electric cooperatives across the state are working to fill in connectivity gaps left by incumbent providers and bring Fiber-to-the-Home service to members.
Alabama’s electric cooperatives were allotted over $7 million in grants. The Tombigbee Electric Cooperative was awarded five grants, totalling over $3 million, to provide broadband services to Franklin County, located in the Northwest corner of the state. Meanwhile, Coosa Valley Electric Cooperative was awarded $1.5 million “to provide Internet access to 739 households, four businesses and three community anchors in an area encompassing part of east Talladega and west Clay counties,” reports WRBL. Covington Electric Cooperative was awarded $1.5 million in grants; Farmers Telecommunications Cooperative was awarded just over $200,000; and Roanoke Telephone Cooperative was awarded $193,221.
Alabama might take note of what lawmakers did in the state of Washington. Having recently lifted all state-imposed restrictions to public broadband, Washington lawmakers made towns, cities, and counties far more competitive now that they have the ability to access federal and state funding for broadband initiatives.
A bill that would “be a massive giveaway to Big Telecom,” (S.B. 556) passed the California Senate by a vote of 29-2 on May 13, reports 48hills. A companion bill (A.B. 537) is moving rapidly through the State Assembly.
S.B. 556 and A.B. 537 would override local regulations controlling the placement of cell towers, antennas, and other equipment, giving big telcos near complete discretion over pole attachments. The bills are reportedly sponsored by Crown Castle, a company that builds cell towers.
The bills have received little opposition from state legislators and limited media coverage, which Tim Redmond of 48hills attributes to wireless providers’ immense lobbying power in the state capitol of Sacramento.
“In 2019 and 2020 alone, state records show, the company [AT&T] has donated $275,000 to the California Republican Party and $755,000 to the California Democratic Party. Gavin Newsom’s campaign for governor got $20,000 in AT&T money,” reports Redmond.