In the American Rescue Plan Act, Congress and the Biden Administration included a multi-billion dollar appropriation to help expand high-speed Internet access. This guide offers an overview of the different funding opportunities for communities interested in expanding broadband services. As application deadlines vary in some cases and other money must be spent within certain time frames, it is critical for states, municipalities, community organizations, and Tribal governments to start planning initiatives now.
It’s also worth emphasizing that 18 states still put localities at a disadvantage when it comes to spending anticipated funding effectively by preserving laws that interfere with community investment in broadband infrastructure. Much of this money could also be funneled for other purposes due to a lack of good plans and community engagement.
The amount of funding flowing into communities is unprecedented. Localities should prepare to spend funds on needed, futureproof infrastructure. This is an historic, once-in-a-lifetime investment in Internet infrastructure and communities who develop a clear, actionable plan and are as ready as possible once the money starts flowing will prosper.
If you’re a homeowner looking for assistance paying your Internet bill…look to the Emergency Broadband Benefit Program or Homeowner’s Assistance Fund.
If you’re an HBCU or Minority-serving institution looking to expand Internet access to your students, or if you’re a minority business enterprise or nonprofit organization in the surrounding community...look to the Connecting Minority Communities Pilot Program.
if you’re a Tribal government, Tribal organization, or Tribal college or university, including native Hawaiian organizations, education programs and native corporations…look to the Tribal Broadband Connectivity Program.
If you’re a city interested in partaking in a public-private partnership…look to the Promote Broadband Expansion Grant Program.
If you’re a school or library whose main concern is obtaining remote Internet access devices...look to the Emergency Connectivity Fund.
Federal Aid Directly To States, Counties, Localities and Territories
Out of the $1.9 trillion in fiscal relief provided by the Rescue Plan, approximately $362 billion is aid being sent directly to states, counties, local municipalities and Tribal governments. The funding is to be used to generally respond to the pandemic and can be used to make necessary investments in water, sewer, and broadband infrastructure.
The percentage of the funds that will be dedicated to Internet access initiatives will vary in different communities and many have speculated it is likely to be low, due to both the varied needs of communities and political barriers in place which prevent some states from dedicating the funds to broadband. For example, a law standing since 2011 in North Carolina, H.B. 129, which was passed in an attempt to overturn local broadband authority and stop municipal networks and public-private partnerships, prohibits cities from doing just about anything related to broadband. There has never been a more critical time to allow communities to determine their own economic, civic and social fates.
While much of the fiscal relief flowing to states, counties, and localities will likely be used for non-broadband infrastructure projects that have been waiting for funds, the amount being disbursed is enough that communities should also be able to use some of it for Internet infrastructure if they desire.
Watch ILSR’s Connect This! episode on Broadband Infrastructure Funding in the American Rescue Plan for a discussion on what local officials need to do to ensure that they are ready to enact long-term positive change once the money comes.
Coronavirus Local Fiscal Recovery Fund
A $130.2 billion fund divided evenly between municipalities and counties.
- Counties: $65.1 billion of the Recovery Fund will provide direct aid to counties based on the county share of the U.S. population. See estimated funding allocations by county here
Metropolitan Cities and Municipalities: $65.1 billion of the Recovery Fund will be distributed by states to cities. Of this, $45.57 billion will be allocated to cities with populations of at least 50,000 and $19.53 billion will be allocated to municipalities with populations below 50,000, with allocations not to exceed 75 percent of the locality’s most recent budget as of January 27, 2020
Specific Allowable Uses of Funds
Allowable uses for the federal aid going to counties and cities include, but are not limited to:
- Responding to the COVID-19 emergency, including its negative economic impacts
- Making necessary investments in water, sewer, or broadband infrastructure
- Providing government services to the extent of any reduction in revenue
- Providing premium pay to essential employees of state or local governments or making grants to the employers of essential employees
The U.S. Treasury is required to pay the first share to recipients no later than May 11, 2021. The second payment is required to be distributed 12 months after the first payment. The deadline to spend funds is December 31, 2024.
Visit the NACo COVID-19 Recovery Clearinghouse for timely resources, including county allocation estimations, updates on U.S. Treasury guidance, examples of county programs using federal coronavirus relief funds and other timely news.
- NACo’s Legislative Analysis for Counties
- NACo’s Rescue Plan FAQs
- Senate Democratic Caucus State and Local Fiscal Recovery Funds Fact Sheet
- Brookings’ How Should Local Leaders Use Their American Rescue Plan Funding?
- Register for White House Rescue Plan Updates
- White House Rescue Plan Fact Sheet
Coronavirus Capital Projects Fund
What Is It?
$10 billion for States, U.S. territories, and Tribal governments to fund “critical capital projects directly enabling work, education, and health monitoring, including remote options,” in response to the pandemic. This fund's impact potential is exciting, as the Rescue Plan’s language insinuates all of this money will go to the broadband ecosystem.
The U.S. Treasury’s Rescue Plan Fact Sheet proclaims that this funding is allocated ”for states, territories, and Tribes to cover the costs of capital projects like broadband infrastructure.” It reasserts that “while some communities were able to adapt to the pandemic with remote or socially-distanced options for work, education, and health care, others lacked the infrastructure needed to do so, compounding the disruptions of the pandemic and exacerbating existing inequalities, with long-term consequences for American families. One particularly salient infrastructure challenge has been the digital divide and the absence of foundational conditions that enable network connectivity and access.”
In addition to infrastructure projects, the Capital Projects Fund also covers initiatives such as broadband mapping and subsidies to pay for home Internet service.
The rules for this fund will be made by the Department of the Treasury and have not been completed. Currently, only six U.S. states lack outlined plans to expand Internet access, and legislators in many of these states are hurrying bills along that would create broadband development offices. Vermont has a strong plan dedicating millions of anticipated federal funding to creating a new state broadband office to coordinate and accelerate the deployment of community broadband infrastructure between the state’s nine Communications Union Districts (CUDs) and their potential partners.
As the Treasury has yet to provide specific guidance (such as minimum service standards) on which projects will be eligible to receive funding, we hope states will have flexibility in determining how to best spend the money. In preparation for the coming funds, a bipartisan group of U.S. Senators, Sens. Michael Bennet, Angus King, Rob Portman, and Joe Manchin, wrote a letter to heads of the FCC, USDA, USDC, and NEC, calling on them to create a unified federal broadband standard, that reflects the bandwidth requirements of present-day life, so these once-in-a-lifetime grants don’t go to outdated technologies.
How Will Funds Be Allocated?
The money will be awarded in the form of state block grants. U.S. states, the District of Columbia, and Puerto Rico will receive a base grant of $100 million with the rest of the funds to be distributed using formulas based on percentages of rural and low-income populations.
Another $100 million will be divided among other U.S. territories while a separate pot of $100 million is earmarked for Tribal governments and Native Hawaiian entities.
The U.S. Treasury has 60 days from enactment on March 11, 2020 to set rules for applying for the funding.
- U.S. Department of Treasury Rescue Plan Funding Fact Sheet
- U.S. Department of Treasury Capital Projects Fund Page
- Doug Dawson on State vs. Federal Broadband Grants
Stimulus Programs Passed Strictly to Fund Internet Access Initiatives
100% of funding allocated for the following federal programs will be devoted to backing Internet access initiatives.
The Emergency Broadband Benefit (EBB) Program
What Is It?
The $3.2 billion program is part of the Consolidated Appropriations Act of 2021, which passed Congress in December 2020. EBB is a federal program administered by the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) to help low-income households pay for Internet service during the COVID-19 pandemic.
For a well-rounded overview of the program, watch ILSR’s Connect This! episode on the Emergency Broadband Benefit.
Under EBB, eligible households can receive a subsidy of up to $50 per month on Internet service, or $75 per month for those living on Tribal lands. Plans regularly costing less than $50 per month will be free to eligible subscribers.
If the participating ISP chooses to provide devices, eligible households can also receive a one-time discount of up to $100 to purchase a laptop, desktop computer, or tablet from providers.
Outstanding payments to an Internet Service Provider (ISPs) do not disqualify a household from eligibility under EBB.
A household is eligible if one member of the household:
- experienced a substantial loss of income since February 29, 2020, shown for example by: a layoff or furlough notice; applying for/receiving unemployment benefits; the household had a total income in 2020 below $99,000 for single filers and $198,000 for joint filers
- received a Federal Pell Grant in the current award year
- receives benefits under the free and reduced-price school lunch program or the school breakfast program, including through the USDA Community Eligibility Provision, or did so in the 2019-2020 school year
- meets the eligibility criteria for a participating broadband Internet service provider’s EXISTING low-income or COVID-19 program
- qualifies for the Lifeline program, typically by participating in one of the following benefits: Medicaid; Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP); Supplemental Security Income (SSI); Federal Public Housing Assistance (FPHA); Veterans and Survivors Pension Benefit Updated; Or has an income at or below 135% of the Federal Poverty Guidelines (currently calculated at $17,388.00 per year); lives on Tribal lands qualifying for Tribal-specific federal assistance program (Section 7)
Which ISPs are eligible to participate?
Participation in EBB is voluntary for Internet Service Providers (ISPs). The program is open to all broadband providers designated as an Eligible Telecommunications Carrier (ETC), which offered service as of December 1, 2020. All broadband providers must file elections to USAC to participate in the EBB Program. Participating providers will receive reimbursement from the program for delivering qualifying broadband services or devices to eligible households. Broadband providers can find more information about how to participate here.
The FCC has received more than 380 applications from ISPs interested in offering discounted services to subscribers and has consolidated a list of providers that will be participating in the Emergency Broadband Benefit program. Over 100 smaller cable companies have announced plans to participate. AT&T has also indicated it will participate.
How to Become an Outreach Partner
The FCC is mobilizing people and organizations to help share important consumer information about the Emergency Broadband Benefit. To participate, please fill out and submit the form located at the bottom of this webpage.
The FCC adopted rules implementing the EBB Program on February 25, 2021 and enrollment is expected to begin by May 2021. The program will end six months after the pandemic is declared to be over or when the funding runs out, whichever occurs first, with the FCC notifying participating ISPs two months prior. The program may be expanded, as U.S. Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., recently introduced legislation authorizing an additional $6 billion for the program.
- FCC Report and Order
- FCC Eligibility Guidelines for Consumers
- NDIA’s EBB Website
- NDIA’s EBB Webinar
- Next Centuries Cities’ Explainer for Non-Traditional Providers
- Next Centuries Cities’ Explainer for Consumers
- Rules for the Funding
Connecting Minority Communities Pilot Program
What Is It?
The National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA) will administer this $285 million grant program, which will fund Internet access services and equipment for minority-serving institutions, their students, and surrounding communities. This grant program, however, will not fund infrastructure projects.
For higher education recipients, grants are intended to support remote learning initiatives. For minority business enterprises and nonprofits, grants are intended to support daily operations.
Eligible equipment includes Wi-Fi hotspots, modems, routers, laptops, tablets, and other Internet-connected devices.
Of the total awards given through the program, at least 40 percent of grants must be made to HBCUs and their surrounding communities.
Entities eligible to receive grants through this program include: historically Black colleges and universities (HBCU), Tribal colleges and universities (TCU), Minority-serving institutions (MSI), and consortiums led by an HBCU, TCUs, HSIs or MSI, including a minority business enterprise or a nonprofit organization in the surrounding community.
Based on the grant’s language, the program will give preference to applicants obtaining necessary devices and equipment for students, funding digital literacy initiatives, and hiring and training technology personnel.
Beginning in April, NTIA will host a series of webinars designed to help prospective applicants understand and prepare high quality grant applications for three new broadband grant programs authorized and funded by the Consolidated Appropriations Act of 2021.
Register here for NTIA’s first session on the Connecting Minority Communities Pilot Program, taking place on May 5. Register here for the second session, taking place on May 6. NTIA will hold additional sessions on May 26 and May 27.
NTIA had 45 days from the day the Act was signed on December 27, 2020 to develop rules for the program. Though the deadline has passed, the rules have yet to be published.
Please check NTIA’s website for updates on the application timeline as they become available.
Tribal Broadband Connectivity Program
What Is It?
This program, administered by NTIA, will provide up to $1 billion to Tribal governments and organizations, including to the Native Hawaiian Community, to improve broadband infrastructure. The program includes support for carrier-neutral submarine cable landing stations, a type of subsea fiber cable.
Carrier-neutral landing stations remove the high commercial costs often associated with cable landing stations owned by one specific carrier. A carrier-neutral cable landing station will allow for community broadband initiatives to flourish in Hawaii, and help establish inter-island fiber, by lowering the costs smaller providers have to pay to gain access to fiber backhaul.
This program is critical as the state of Hawaii, which is not at the benefit of having neighboring states, has been unable to receive funding for a carrier-neutral cable landing station, though broadband activists like Burt Lum, Strategy Officer for the Hawaii Broadband Initiative, have been lobbying heavily for one since 2018. This program also funds affordability programs.
Entities eligible to receive grants through this program include: Tribal governments (subgrantees allowed), Tribal organizations, TCUs, the Department of Hawaiian Homelands on behalf of the Native Hawaiian Community, Native Hawaiian education programs and native corporations as defined under Section 3 of the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act.
NTIA held a series of consultation sessions on February 10 and 12 to gain Tribal input on the program. Check NTIA’s website for updates on the application timeline as they become available.
Promote Broadband Expansion Grant Program
What Is It?
A $300 million grant program, administered by NTIA, directed to partnerships between a state or local government, and a service provider capable of providing fixed broadband service to areas that do not have broadband access, especially rural areas.
This federal pilot program highlights a larger shift in the U.S. government's approach to achieving universal access, from endlessly subsidizing monopoly ISPs to prioritizing open access networks and public-private partnerships. This shift began with U.S. Rep. James Clyburn’s Affordable, Accessible Internet for All (AAIA) Act and carried into President Biden’s Americans Jobs Plan.
Partnerships between states, local jurisdictions, and ISPs are eligible to apply. Eligible Telecommunications Carrier (ETC) designation is not required.
According to NTIA’s scoring system, priority will be given to project proposals that are designed to provide broadband service to the greatest number of households in an eligible service area; focus on rural areas; demonstrate cost effectiveness; and provide service at a threshold no less than 100/20 Megabits per second (Mbps). NTIA will hold application guidance sessions on May 12 and May 13.
Please check NTIA’s website for updates on the application timeline as they become available. All grant funds must be expended within a year of being awarded.
Emergency Connectivity Fund
What Is It?
A $7 billion allocation of funds, appropriated by the American Rescue Plan, to the FCC’s E-Rate program to improve Internet access by providing discounts and partially funding the cost of Internet services and equipment to schools and libraries. The FCC is now considering rules for how to provide support to eligible schools and libraries. Schools and libraries will likely be able to use the funds to purchase eligible devices, equipment and advanced telecommunications services.
On March 10, the FCC announced that schools and libraries could use the funds to connect students, teachers, and library patrons to broadband connections off-campus. Anchor institutions “can now choose to purchase broadband service from existing providers (subsidizing Internet access) or take advantage of exciting and innovative new wireless solutions to serve their communities,” wrote John Windenhausen Jr., Executive Director of the Schools, Health, and Libraries Broadband (SHLB) Coalition, in a press release.
Whether the funding can be used to reimburse schools and libraries for costs incurred while subsidizing Internet access from the onset of the pandemic has yet to be decided.
Funding is provided to eligible schools, school districts, and libraries. Funds are distributed to both public and private schools that do not have an endowment exceeding $50 million. For libraries to qualify for funding, they must be eligible for assistance from a state library administrative agency under the 1996 Library Services and Technology Act.
The SHLB Coalition is exploring offering a virtual training session on how to apply for funding from the E-rate Emergency Connectivity Fund in late May.
The FCC has until May to develop guidelines for the program. If the FCC opens the filing window at the end of May and closes the filing window by the end of June funding commitments could be made on a rolling basis starting at the end of July/August 2021.
- Description of E-Rate Application Process
- Internet Society E-Rate Eligibility Guide
- SHLB Coalition’s Petition to FCC to Use E-Rate Funds For Remote Learning
- SHLB Coalition’s What Could Schools and Libraries Do With $7 Billion?
- Benton’s How Can $7 Billion Close the Homework Gap?
Programs Passed with An Unspecified Amount for Broadband Infrastructure
Homeowners Assistance Fund
A $9.961 billion grant to the Homeowner Assistance Fund which could be used for assisting homeowners with a variety of payments, such as those related to mortgages, home insurance and utilities. The funds can also be used for administering essential services to the home, including Internet access. Payments also can be used to reimburse states and local governments for funds spent starting on January 21, 2020.
The purpose of this fund is to promote housing stability and avoid homeowner displacement, mortgage delinquencies, foreclosures, and the loss of utilities or home energy services. The percentage of this fund going to broadband is likely to be low.
Homeowners who experienced financial hardship after January 21, 2020 are eligible for housing assistance. At least 60 percent of funds are reserved for homeowners with income at or below the regional or national median income, whichever is greater. Remaining funds must be prioritized for socially-disadvantaged individuals.
While the details have yet to be announced, it is likely that there will be an application process administered by each state, eligible housing finance agency or sub-grantee. States, territories, and tribes must request funds before April 26, 2021.
The U.S. Treasury must start making payments 45 days after the law was enacted on March 11, 2021. The funds must be used by September 30, 2025. Check the U.S. Treasury’s Housing Programs website for more information.
Header image by unsplash user Mike Stoll