From billions of dollars in new funding to mandatory minimum speeds, why NOW is an unprecedented time for broadband expansion in America
By Eric Frederick, Vice President, Community Affairs
I recently looked up “how much is a billion?” It’s a difficult number to comprehend. The most common answer is that it’s a thousand million. Another answer is that a billion seconds is equivalent to 31 and a half years.
It’s quite the sum. Now, try to imagine a billion times 365 and you’re approaching the amount of money the federal government is putting toward an unprecedented effort to help Americans recover from the negative economic impact of COVID-19, including connecting U.S. residents and businesses to broadband, another term for high-speed internet.
The current need to expand broadband access has often been compared to the past need to electrify the country. In 1932, only about 10% of rural America was electrified. The reason electricity is now commonplace is because President Franklin D. Roosevelt worked with Congress to establish the Rural Electrification Administration (REA)* and connect all American households.
Now, nearly a century later, we’re seeing a similar large-scale investment around the need for expanded broadband access to every American household.
In early 2020, it was conservatively estimated that 18.3 million Americans lacked broadband. Vulnerable and rural populations were hit the hardest, with 45% of low-income families, 16.9 million school-aged children, and 17.2% of rural residents lacking access to high-speed internet**.
The COVID-19 pandemic laid bare just how damaging it was to have so many Americans disconnected. Millions of adults struggled to telework and access telehealth, and millions of our nation’s children lost months, if not a year, of learning — simply because they did not have adequate (or any) internet service or equipment.
Now, Congress and the Biden Administration are attempting to finally tackle the need for every household to have not only access but ample internet speeds.
The current list of broadband-related funding includes $350 billion for the coronavirus state and local fiscal recovery funds, which can be used for broadband and other economic recovery related improvements, and $10 billion for the coronavirus capital projects fund, both of which were set aside in the American Rescue Plan of 2021; $1.3 billion for the USDA Rural Development’s ReConnect Program, which usually has $700 million annually; $3.2 billion for the Emergency Broadband Benefit Program, which provides discounts for eligible households; $44.5 million for the USDA distance learning and telemedicine grants, which just closed to applications; and $571 million for the rural health care grants.
That’s not counting the $100 billion proposed in the American Jobs Plan or the $20.4 billion committed through the Rural Digital Opportunity Fund over the next 10 years for broadband expansion.
But there’s something else at play here that every community and state leader should know — Congress and the Biden Administration are not only investing billions to fund the expansion of the internet and make it more affordable for more individuals and families, but they are also requiring new builds to be “future proof.”
They are requiring mandatory minimum speeds, which means if a provider or municipality uses the money for broadband, they must look at a fiber connection or equivalent and it must be scalable (i.e., able to scale up as technology evolves.)
Let’s not squander these bipartisan billions
Connected Nation is celebrating 20 years of service in 2021. That means we’ve been working with community, state, and federal leaders for two decades to provide guidance and understanding about why we must expand broadband access, adoption, and use, and, perhaps more importantly, how to do it.
In that time, as incredible as it seems, I’ve met with communities that actually gave COVID-19 emergency funds back because they were unsure how to tackle the need for better internet. We cannot allow that to happen now.
The pandemic has taught us a serious lesson — we can no longer wait to close the Digital Divide. Squandering this opportunity would have dire consequences for our children and families, our businesses, and our communities.
Right now, communities need every tool there is to help expand broadband. It’s vital that state and federal policies keep pace with all the ways in which communities can achieve their broadband goals.
So, let’s not waste the billions in funding. Instead, let’s use it in an effective, intelligent way by approaching the problem with a plan. Let’s take steps now to connect all Americans because, as we say around here, “Everybody belongs in a Connected Nation.”
We are tracking the latest broadband funding opportunities closely. You can find up-to-date details by heading to this webpage. Learn more about Connected Nation at connectednation.org or contact us at info@connectednation.
**18.3 million lack broadband
45% low income families lack access
17.24% of Rural residents do not have access to 25x3 (high-speed internet – also called broadband)
16.9 million school aged children lack access-based on analysis of the 2018 ACS data done here