Concerns are being raised by cities and counties in the U.S. about a new rule by President Joe Biden that could prevent them from accessing $350 billion of Coronavirus relief aid to increase high-speed internet connectivity.
Biden has established a goal to bring affordable and fast internet to every American home. The vast American Rescue Plan was a step in that direction by including broadband infrastructure as one of the primary uses for pandemic assistance flowing to every city, county, state.
However, the U.S. Treasury Department issued an interim rule which has tightened the eligibility for broadband. This interim rule is focused on areas with poor broadband. The internet connects devices through a cable/data line at minimum 25 megabits per se and upload speeds of no less than 3 Mbps.
The Federal Communications Commission established a definition of broadband in 2015, which means that funding is available for remote rural areas with slow or no internet access. However, cities claim that the threshold does not reflect the reality of the internet today.
Although most cities have broadband, it might not be fast enough for multiple people trying to stream, work, and study simultaneously. This is a common situation during the coronavirus pandemic. It is also possible that the price tag will be higher than what lower-income residents are able to afford.
“They’re basically prioritizing the rural areas over those underserved areas where there are more people,” Detta Kissel, a retired Treasury Department lawyer who helped create agency rules, said. Now, she advocates for better internet service in Arlington, Virginia, which is a Washington, D.C. suburb.
A number of cities, including San Antonio and Los Angeles, submitted public comments that urged the Treasury Department to lower the criteria for spending pandemic relief money on internet. Some are asking the Treasury to limit download and upload speeds to 100 Mbps in underserved regions.
According to the study by America’s Communications Association (which represents small and medium-sized internet service providers), this would increase funding eligibility from approximately 11 million to around 82 million households nationwide.
Cities suggest that the Treasury use a 100/100Mbps eligibility threshold. This is the speed that projects should achieve if they are granted funding. The flexibility of a separate infrastructure bill, which is currently moving through Congress, allows some of the $65 billion in broadband funding for “underserved” areas without upload speeds of 20 Mb/s and download speeds of 100 Mb/s.
The Treasury should follow its original rule. This could allow areas with low population to leapfrog other urban areas when it comes to their internet speeds. This is not the case for all mayors.
“The inner-city of Memphis is as desperate for broadband connection as rural Tennessee,” said Memphis Mayor Jim Strickland. He needs assurance from Treasury Department before spending $20 Million from the American Rescue Plan on broadband projects.
Milwaukee residents can already access at least one internet provider, offering upload speeds of 3Mbps and download speeds of 25Mbps. David Henke (the city’s chief info officer) said that in some areas of Milwaukee, less than half of households have internet access due to its high cost.
Henke stated that if you don’t have work and can’t afford broadband, it’s a vicious cycle. “You are locked out remote learning, remote work and participation basically in a modern community.”
Henke stated that Milwaukee applied for $12.5 million from Wisconsin’s American Rescue Plan. The city would also chip in $2.5million of its own pandemic relief money, to help expand affordable broadband access into more areas of the city. However, the city asked the Treasury Department to expand “the narrow language” of its rule.
The Treasury has not yet set a date when the final rule will be published, even though the public comment period ended July 31st. A Treasury official stated that the department was continuing to review the comments, and it is expected to continue this process into the fall.
U.S. Senator Ron Wyden (an Oregon Democrat) is one of those who are urging Treasury Department to adopt a broader eligibility limit. He said that it would be “severely wrong” to assume that all communities are satisfied with the “woefully obsolete” broadband benchmark that the department has established.
Broadband industry groups have typically urged the Treasury not to change its original plan, which was to target money at the areas with the slowest internet speeds.
Patrick Halley (general counsel at USTelecom), said that the money for pandemic relief should not be reinvested in areas that have broadband and make it better, but instead go to “places with no broadband at all.”
NCTA, a cable industry group, urged Treasury officials to tighten eligibility. It is seeking to limit the number households that have already received faster service and can be included in areas that will receive improvements. It also wants to end the potential for subjective local decisions about areas with poor service.
Industry groups stated that allowing improvements in areas where the minimum speed thresholds are already met could lead to the siphoning of money from the most difficult-to-reach areas, potentially leaving them without services once the federal money has been spent.
According to the study by America’s Communications Association, it could cost anywhere from $20 billion to $37 billion to bring super-fast internet service in every area that currently has less than 25/3 Mbps speeds. This cost rises to $106 billion to $179 million if you include all areas that are currently not connected at speeds of 100/100Mbps.
Ross Lieberman (the association’s senior vice-president of government affairs) stated that “as a matter prioritization we think it’s best not to start with areas that have the most,”
Although most complaints about the rule by the Treasury Department have been from large cities, there have been some concerns raised by residents living in rural areas.
Charlie Hopkins is a retired computer hardware and program designer who lives in a house on an isolated Maine island. Accessible only by boat, it’s accessible only to him. The internet speed at his house was barely 5 Mbps when downloading and 0.4 Mbps uploading, according to tests done recently by The Associated Press.
Hopkins is concerned about the Treasury Department rule making it harder for the island to obtain funding to improve its internet. Hopkins says some homes have faster speeds. He stated that broadband is crucial to retain and attract residents.
Hopkins stated, “Other Maine towns, especially the larger ones, are getting higher speed fiberoptic-based Internet.” “I don’t like the idea of being told, “Well, you’re at the End of the Earth so you don’t qualify.”