Digging into broadband funding in American Rescue Plan – still building a have vs have not world

We have been anxiously awaiting the details of the American Rescue Plan where we have been promised billions of dollars for broadband, among other things. We’ve also been promised a customer-centric approach to broadband deployment. Yesterday the US Department of the Treasury announced the $350 billion plan and released the details.

Upon first blush, things look good for broadband – but the devil is in the details. This stuff is wonky but important. It’s hard because we want to remain hopeful and be cooperative but we also want to see the money get to the people who can do the most good. I have pulled out the highest level details to make it easier…

They recognize that broadband is important…

The National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA) highlighted the growing necessity of broadband in daily lives through its analysis of NTIA Internet Use Survey data, noting that Americans turn to broadband Internet access service for every facet of daily life including work, study, and healthcare.

They see a huge gap between the haves and have-nots…

By at least one measure, however, tens of millions of Americans live in areas where there is no broadband infrastructure that provides download speeds greater than 25 Mbps and upload speeds of 3 Mbps. By contrast, as noted below, many households use upload and download speeds of 100 Mbps to meet their daily needs.

They measure average speed…

Using the Federal Communication Commission’s (FCC) Broadband Speed Guide, for example, a household with two telecommuters and two to three remote learners today are estimated to need 100 Mbps download to work simultaneously. In households with more members, the demands may be greater, and in households with fewer members, the demands may be less. …

In the few years preceding the pandemic, market research data showed that average upload speeds in the United States surpassed over 10 Mbps in 2017 and continued to increase significantly, with the average upload speed as of November, 2019 increasing to 48.41 Mbps, attributable, in part to a shift to using broadband and the internet by individuals and businesses to create and share content using video sharing, video conferencing, and other applications.

The increasing use of data accelerated markedly during the pandemic as households across the country became increasingly reliant on tools and applications that require greater internet capacity, both to download data but also to upload data.

They set the bar higher, but (and here is where it sounds familiar) they set up a two-tier goal…

Under the Interim Final Rule, eligible projects are expected to be designed to deliver, upon project completion, service that reliably meets or exceeds symmetrical upload and download speeds of 100 Mbps. There may be instances in which it would not be practicable for a project to deliver such service speeds because of the geography, topography, or excessive costs associated with such a project. In these instances, the affected project would be expected to be designed to deliver, upon project completion, service that reliably meets or exceeds 100 Mbps download and between at least 20 Mbps and 100 Mbps upload speeds and be scalable to a minimum of 100 Mbps symmetrical for download and upload speeds.

I don’t understand why they go with upload speed of 20 Mbps when their own reporting finds that in 2019 (pre-COVID) the average upload was 48 Mbps – clearly more than double what they are requiring. Yes, it will be more costly to provide that in some areas – that’s why there is government support! Otherwise we are sanctioning broadband slow zones. Who wants to move to or start a business in a broadband slow zone? This system sets up a second class system because it’s looking at the needs of providers, not residents. We see that more when they address eligibility.

They define eligibility:

  • Under the Interim Final Rule, eligible projects are expected to focus on locations that are unserved or underserved. The Interim Final Rule treats users as being unserved or underserved if they lack access to a wireline connection capable of reliably delivering at least minimum speeds of 25 Mbps download and 3 Mbps upload as households and businesses lacking this level of access are generally not viewed as being able to originate and receive high-quality voice, data, graphics, and video telecommunications.
  • In selecting an area to be served by a project, recipients are encouraged to avoid investing in locations that have existing agreements to build reliable wireline service with minimum speeds of 100 Mbps download and 20 Mbps upload by December 31, 2024, in order to avoid duplication of efforts and resources.
  • Recipients are also encouraged to consider ways to integrate affordability options into their program design.
  • To meet the immediate needs of unserved and underserved households and businesses, recipients are encouraged to focus on projects that deliver a physical broadband connection by prioritizing projects that achieve last mile-connections.
  • Treasury also encourages recipients to prioritize support for broadband networks owned, operated by, or affiliated with local governments, non-profits, and co-operatives—providers with less pressure to turn profits and with a commitment to serving entire communities.

The definition of unserved/underserved (they make a distinction between the two) is 25/3; this is much lower than the Minnesota definition, which is 25/3 for unserved and 100/20 for underserved. By not addressing folks without access to 100/20, they are creating another type of future broadband slow zones – where the broadband wasn’t bad enough to fix in 2021, yet doesn’t meet the proposed (or target speeds) of areas that will receive funding. We saw that after the ARRA funding of 2010. Communities were left with “donut holes” where rural parts of the county qualified for an upgrade (sometimes to FTTH) but the towns did not. It naturally leads to uneven service through the county, especially if the provider who serves the cities or towns is not the provider who serves the rural area. It leaves both providers in a difficult position for improving the more populated places. The customers are the ones who lose out.

Side note: We saw during the pandemic that spotty access impacts the whole county. It means some kids can’t learn online, some folks can’t work online and that effects policies.

Another catch here is that providers are encouraged to avoid area where another provider has agreed to build out by 2024. Unfortunately a promise to build by 2024 is not like having a network you can use today or even by 2024. Historically we have seen this with CAF II funding. About five years ago the largest carriers were offered money to expand broadband to unserved areas. Frontier accepted $283 million in funding annually and CenturyLink accepted $514 million annually. Both providers have service areas in Minnesota; both reported earlier this year that “they may not have met CAF II deployment deadlines for 2020.” The customers wait. The customers have been prohibited from making other plans either sometimes because of similar rules for other funding.

More recently, and perhaps more acutely, communities are feeling this pinch with the recent RDOF grant announcements. One provider (LTD Broadband) has qualified to bid to receive $312 million to serve parts of Minnesota. Communities that had made plans with other providers and were in the hopper to possibly get State Funding for broadband were immediately disqualified for that opportunity.  Residents, policymakers and other providers have expressed concern over the RDOF process; and yet the ARP process feels very similar and indeed, the RDOF process is cited in the details released this week.

Pandora’s Box is not entirely open yet though – the details “encourage” recipients to prioritize support for broadband networks owned, operated by, or affiliated with local governments, non-profits, and co-operatives. I don’t see any demonstrative encouragement here. I will have more faith in the mentioning of it when I do.

This entry was posted in Funding, Policy and tagged by Ann Treacy. Bookmark the permalink.

About Ann Treacy

Librarian who follows rural broadband in MN and good uses of new technology (blandinonbroadband.org), hosts a radio show on MN music (mostlyminnesota.com), supports people experiencing homelessness in Minnesota (elimstrongtowershelters.org) and helps with social justice issues through Women’s March MN.

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