Maryland plans to funnel American Rescue Plan Act funding towards community broadband
Vermont Governor bolsters House plan backing Communications Union Districts
A national movement to address digital inclusion ignites
See the bottom of this post for related job openings
Maryland State Governor Larry Hogan made digital equity and literacy a top priority of the state when he signed H.B. 97, the Digital Connectivity Act, into law on April 13. The new law establishes the Office of Statewide Broadband (OSB) within the Maryland Department of Housing and Community Development to create a plan to get all Marylanders connected to affordable, high-speed Internet by 2026. The OSB will also assist in administering $300 million for digital equity initiatives out of the $3.9 billion Maryland received in American Rescue Plan funds.
The $300 million allocation will be broken down into separate pots of money to address physical infrastructure, affordability, and adoption: $45 million will be for grants that support and expand municipal broadband networks; $75 million for affordability initiatives to subsidize the cost of monthly service fees and devices for eligible residents who are subscribers to private Internet Service Providers (ISPs); and $150 million dedicated to deploy broadband infrastructure and expand connectivity in both urban and rural areas. In addition, $10 million is earmarked for local government and community-based solutions, and $6 million will support adoption initiatives, including $4 million for a new division under the University System of Maryland to develop curriculum on digital literacy and addressing the broadband gap.
Maryland had a state rural broadband office prior to the creation of the new OSB office. The rural broadband office offers support to Maryland’s rural regions attempting to access federal funding opportunities. The new OSB will be dedicated to addressing barriers that address the connectivity challenges Maryland’s suburban and metro residents face, including issues of affordability and digital literacy. The new legislation represents a more holistic view in how the state will address the digital divide. Instead of solely focusing on expanding broadband infrastructure in rural regions, H.B. 97 considers various other barriers that prevent people from accessing the Internet.
Vermont Governor Phil Scott recently unveiled a $1 billion spending plan detailing how the state will disburse American Rescue Plan funds. The spending plan utilizes the same broadband planning model that state lawmakers proposed in H.B. 360, but increases the proposed funding from $150 million to $250 million.
H.B. 360, a bill that passed the State House last month, proposed allocating $150 million of anticipated federal funds to Vermont’s nine Communications Union Districts (CUDs) for startup capital necessary for CUDs to build broadband networks and provide a path for them to be financially self-sufficient in the long-term.
If the measure passes the State Senate, the funds would be allocated in the form of grants to CUDs based on “a pro-rata distribution of underserved locations within their districts,” according to Gov. Scott’s proposed American Rescue spending plan. The plan further declares that “CUDs or towns accepting funds would be required to deploy fiber service at 100/100 Mbps to all eligible locations in the area they serve.” The public entities would do so by either building their own networks or by entering into public-private partnerships with a private ISP.
“The step of building the infrastructure alone does not address income inequality and digital literacy barriers to using the Internet. This program could be bolstered by requiring the recipients of the money to provide a low-income program or offer broadband lifeline service,” Gov. Scott’s proposal reads.
A legislative package aimed at improving Internet access in West Virginia, H.B. 2002, is in the hands of Gov. Jim Justice, after passing the State Senate by a vote of 32-2 on April 9.
H.B. 2002 codifies the responsibilities of the state’s Office of Broadband, established last year within the State Department of Commerce. The bill includes protections for Internet service subscribers which allow them to file complaints with the West Virginia Attorney General’s Office. It further requires ISPs notify subscribers when prices increase and refund subscribers for service outages lasting more than 24 hours. The broadband package also aims to expedite right-of-ways by coordinating construction projects between the state’s Office of Broadband and Division of Highways.
Though the House bill made it through the State Senate, it wasn’t smooth sailing. Debates broke out over whether to allocate a portion of the federal fiscal relief headed to West Virginia for broadband expansion. A handful of amendments were also considered before the bill’s passage, one of which, proposed by Sen. Robert Plymale, D-Wayne, was adopted and rejected within the span of a few days.
Sen. Plymale offered amendments that attempted to address an issue which he and the bill’s sponsor, Rep. Daniel Linville, R-Cabell, shared with the legislation, that it didn’t include a plan to give the broadband office spending authority.
Plymale’s defeated amendment to H.B. 2002 would have given the broadband office the authority to establish a grant matching initiative and fund open access middle-mile fiber to unserved areas. However, Sen. Mark Maynard, R-Wayne, along with more than half of the State Senate, countered the amendment, saying it may be premature because the federal government is considering millions of dollars in broadband funding “and it’s unclear what strings would be attached,” MetroNews reported.
Though the State Senate had 40 days to consider the bill, it passed H.B. 2002 in the waning hours of West Virginia’s 2021 legislative session. The Logan Banner reported Linville’s belief that the last minute maneuvering was “by design to force the House’s hand to accept the Senate’s amendments.” Linville blamed the debacle on industry giants, specifically naming Comcast and Suddenlink lobbyists for pressuring State Senators to reject Plymale’s amendment to H.B. 2002.
Linville’s passion for improving West Virginia’s critical infrastructure was exhibited in the strong message he sent to incumbent ISPs in the State House on the evening of April 10.
“They think that because we need this so desperately, they can write the legislation," Linville said, according to WV Public Broadcasting. “They think they can threaten us with stopping projects they have planned in order to ensure that we take no action describing how funds should be disbursed in a way that would be to the greatest benefit of our citizens. Bending that way is exactly what got us in the position we're in."
"I will promise you this: if you're a bad actor, if you're serving the people of the State of West Virginia, and if you take money and you don't get the job done as the House Committee on Technology and Infrastructure has demonstrated this year, we'll invite you to appear under oath," Linville said. "If an invitation doesn't suit you, we will subpoena you.”
Though Plymale’s attempt to amend H.B. 2002 failed, he ultimately succeeded in his pursuit to grant West Virginia’s Office of Broadband spending authority. Plymale successfully amended the state budget bill, H.B. 2022, to give the Office of Broadband $50 million in public spending authority.
New York Governor Andrew Cuomo approved the inclusion of multiple initiatives to address digital equity in the state’s budget for Fiscal Year 2021-22.
The new budget includes a requirement for all ISPs who serve 20,000 customers or more in New York to offer a 25/3 Megabits per second (Mbps) broadband service option for eligible low-income state residents for $15 per month.
The budget also includes a $15 million statewide Digital Inclusion Grant Program. The digital inclusion program will be administered by the State Education Department and will assist local groups in community outreach efforts. Grants will be available for nonprofits, schools, libraries, local governments, municipal housing authorities and other community-based organizations.
The approved budget further appropriates funding for the Public Service Commission to create a comprehensive map of Internet access in the State and conduct a study on the availability, reliability, and cost of broadband.
The Internet Equity Act, a bill introduced by D.C. Councilmember Charles Allen, D-Ward 6, on April 6, would establish a Digital Equity Division within the Office of the Chief Technology Officer to conduct studies to ensure high-speed Internet is accessible and affordable to every District resident.
Within 90 days of being enacted, and every two years thereafter, the division would be required to recommend minimum upload and download speeds necessary to conduct remote learning. Within six months of enactment, the Digital Equity Division is charged with finding a solution to connect households who cannot afford, or who struggle to pay for, Internet service, at a monthly cost that does not exceed one half of one percent of the household’s income.
The board would also be tasked with determining how difficult it is for D.C. residents to access and complete online applications for government services and benefits.
Texas is one of six states without a broadband plan. In an attempt to get the state up to speed, state lawmakers introduced S.B. 5 in late February. The Texas Senate unanimously passed the legislation on March 31, and since federal funds earmarked for expanding access to remote education, work, and health are headed to Texas, the State House should be in a hurry with the bill.
The legislation would form a 17-member state broadband office charged with developing a plan to expand access to high-speed Internet to as many Texans as possible. The office would do so by distributing loans and grants, creating a state broadband map “using new FCC data,” and identifying barriers to broadband deployment. A shortcoming of the broadband plan is that it fails to include Tribal representation on the proposed board.
Another bill, S.B. 507, that would give ISPs access to highway rights-of-way to install necessary wires and cables for broadband networks was also passed in the State Senate on March 31.
S.B. 93 enacts the Office of Broadband Access and Expansion, tasked with collecting input from each local and Tribal government within New Mexico to create a three-year strategy for the state to expand access to the Internet, before January 1, 2022. The board will also coordinate with State, local, Tribal governments and private ISPs to create a publicly-accessible, online state broadband map.
Meanwhile, H.B. 10 enacts the Connect New Mexico Fund and the Connect New Mexico Council. The Council is charged with evaluating grant proposals and awarding grants available in the state connectivity fund. The council will be composed of 15 members, including five members of the general public who have experience with broadband connectivity challenges.
Federal investments in digital infrastructure and digital literacy initiatives are on the rise, and so are opportunities for job openings:
The Marconi Society is looking to hire a Digital Inclusion Program Manager and a Development Manager. The nonprofit is also offering a paid fellowship, called a “scholar in residence.” Read more about these positions here.
Tech Goes Home, a nonprofit focused on empowering communities in Boston and across the United States to access and use digital tools to overcome barriers, is hiring a Corporate Engagement Coordinator and a Program Operations Manager. Read more about these positions here.
Washington state is adding a Digital Equity Leader to the statewide broadband team. According to NDIA, if you are interested in learning more, call Russ Elliott, Director of the Washington State Broadband Office, at 360.725.4052.