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Assessing Local ARPA Broadband Expenditures in the Great Lakes Region

Berrien Springs, Michigan (March 20, 2023) - On March 17, I presented a poster titled, “Assessing Local ARPA Broadband Expenditures in the Great Lakes Region,” to the 2023 Michigan Academy of Science, Arts, and Letters (MASAL) Conference at Andrews University in Berrien Springs, Michigan.

My poster focused on funding from the American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) allocated toward broadband investments in Tier 1 metropolitan local governments (cities and counties with a population over 200,000) in the Great Lakes states. In particular, which local governments prioritize spending their ARPA allocations on broadband-related expenditures.

I retrieved data about ARPA expenditures from the Local Government ARPA Investment Tracker — an online tool created by Brookings Metro, the National League of Cities, and the National Association of Counties to track ARPA allocations and spending. Demographic information comes from the 2017-21 five-year estimates created by the American Community Survey (ACS). To analyze relationships between variables, I utilized logistic regression models.

Considering the variables

I started from the assumption that localities with a greater need for broadband investment would be more likely to receive it. The ACS contains several variables that can be used to test this hypothesis.

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David Nunally's presentation at MASAL

To measure broadband needs, I relied on the percentage of households with no internet subscription (unserved), the percentage of households with a mobile data plan but without home internet service (underserved), the percentage of households with no internet-connected computing devices, and the percentage of households with a smartphone but no other internet-connected computing device.

Related to digital equity, I also tested the effect of local poverty levels on the decision to prioritize broadband investment — as poverty makes it harder to afford internet service and devices. Finally, assuming that people who work from home would be more dependent on high-speed internet than the general population, I tested whether the percentage of workers over age 16 who work from home impacts the likelihood of broadband investment.

Measuring results

Overall, the analyses yielded few results. Most of these variables came back insignificant, indicating that they had no independent impact on the decision to invest in broadband using ARPA dollars. However, some of the other models generated surprising findings.

Localities with a higher percentage of households with mobile broadband but without home internet service were significantly less likely to invest their ARPA allocations into broadband-related projects. Similarly, localities with a higher percentage of households without internet-connected computing devices (or with a smartphone but no other computing devices) were significantly less likely to invest their ARPA funds into broadband-related projects.

These results indicate that, based on various metrics, localities with a greater need for broadband investment are less likely to receive it — contrary to my hypothesis at the start of this research endeavor.

Research limitations

Before jumping to conclusions and sounding the alarms, I want to highlight the limitations of this study. First and foremost, I focused on the Great Lakes region rather than the entire country. Given that the ARPA data tracks funding and spending in Tier 1 metropolitan local governments, my analyses rely on information from only 77 localities. More importantly, this small subset of localities has larger populations on average, and results from the Great Lakes region might not represent national trends.

The overall broadband context matters in this case as well. President Biden signed the American Rescue Plan Act into law in March of 2021. That same month, he unveiled his proposal for the American Jobs Plan (the precursor to the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act), and U.S. Congress introduced the Digital Equity Act.

Given that these pieces of legislation devote substantial funding to closing the Digital Divide, localities might have hesitated to spend too much of their ARPA funds on broadband investments — especially larger metropolitan areas, which might receive more funding than rural areas due to their population density.

Raising awareness

Finally, it’s important to consider that correlation is not the same as causation. Local leaders might not have chosen what not to fund, but rather had a set of funding priorities that took precedence over their concerns about broadband connectivity and/or internet-connected device ownership.

Regardless, my findings suggest that we need to do more to raise awareness about the impact of the Digital Divide in our communities and communicate these concerns to policymakers. Collecting and analyzing broadband data provides us with the necessary information to make educated suggestions about who needs what and where.

With billions of dollars in funding becoming available this summer through the Broadband Equity, Access, and Deployment (BEAD) program, we have the opportunity to take on this challenge like never before.

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About the Author: David Nunally is the Research Assistant for Connected Nation. David is responsible for using qualitative and quantitative techniques to interpret survey data, in addition to collecting data from secondary sources to help support those findings. David works with internal and external stakeholders to help develop research and provide critical information in support of the Connected Nation mission.