Written by Ben Lewis-Ramirez and Rene Gonzalez

As a result of the impacts from the digital divide in our communities, states, and country we are finally on a path towards closing these critical gaps in our infrastructure and deploying the technology of tomorrow. With over $25 billion in federal funding dedicated specifically for broadband and digital inclusion efforts over the past several years, and state legislative bodies making similar investments across the country, we are finally ushering in a new era for broadband deployment.

Prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, the need to address critical gaps in our broadband infrastructure was evident, however the funding needed to solve the problem and deploy solutions was not readily available. While investment in addressing the needs in rural areas across the country have been assisted greatly by the programs of the United States Department of Agriculture’s ReConnect, Community Connect, and Distance Learning and Telemedicine grants over the past several years, funding has not been reciprocal for urban and suburban communities.

After witnessing the challenges faced by our K-12 schools, universities, and remote workers during the pandemic, it is fair to acknowledge that the digital divide exists in non-rural areas as well. With the funding provided by the federal government in the CARES Act, Consolidated Appropriations Act of 2021, and American Rescue Plan Act of 2021 more efforts are being made by communities, both urban and rural. This isn’t a game about winners and losers, to close the digital divide permanently we must utilize solutions that build greater capacity and quality broadband deployment for the county as a whole.

Beginning in March of 2020, some communities determined that it was critical to utilize local aid provided in the CARES Act to support the deployment of broadband infrastructure in response to the pandemic. While this was a positive development, the deadline of completing all projects prior to the end of December 2020 posed a major challenge. Fortunately, the Consolidated Appropriations Act of 2021 included an extension of the March 2020 local aid until the end of 2021 and the American Rescue Plan Act of 2021 allows for projects to be completed by the end of December 2026.

This is a tremendous opportunity for more communities to learn from the efforts of projects completed in 2020 and make similar investments in their own. Luckily, there will be more time to complete these potential projects this time around! Also, the establishment of the Capital Projects Fund in the American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) provides an additional $10 billion in funding for communities to make investments in broadband infrastructure. With the Federal Communication Commission’s (FCC) Emergency Broadband Benefit program that launched in April 2021 and new grant programs being implemented by the National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA) such as the Broadband Infrastructure, Tribal Connectivity, and the Connecting Minority Communities Pilot Programs, there are great opportunities to utilize this funding to build greater capacity in underserved communities. Combined with the new leadership of Acting Chair, Jessica Rosenworcel at the FCC, both communities and industry partners such as Lit Communities can now pursue these efforts with confidence.

There is a great sense of optimism that the new leadership at the FCC will address long-standing concerns surrounding the accuracy of broadband mapping and data collections from incumbent providers. While you might not know about the infamous FCC Form 477, you might have been impacted by it. In a nutshell, the data that is currently provided by ISPs overstates availability since data is provided at the census block level. This is a major issue because this inaccurate data not only disqualifies some communities from applying for federal grant funding, but it also results in uncertainty when awarding billions of dollars through the FCC’s Rural Deployment Opportunity Fund (RDOF) and related programs. Thanks to the passage of the Broadband DATA Act (Public Law No. 116-130) and the funding provided in the Consolidated Appropriations Act of 2021, we can be hopeful for a more granular and accurate picture of broadband availability starting in March 2022. With a solid awareness of the homework gap, there is a sense that the $7.6 billion in funding for the Emergency Connectivity Fund will be the start of an approach to expand the E-Rate program to address connectivity beyond the classroom and into the homes of students and instructors. Lastly, while it has been quite some time since Congress passed a major infrastructure bill, there is even more potential to put funding towards broadband deployment and closing the digital divide. Thanks to the leadership of Rep. James Clyburn (SC – 6th District) and other key leaders in Congress have put forth proposals that would authorize more than $65 billion to ensure unserved and underserved communities would have affordable high-speed internet access. 

In the communities of Brownsville, TX and York County, PA, Lit has successfully facilitated the application of ARPA funding for the construction of middle mile network infrastructure. In Brownsville, the city is using ARPA dollars to build a redundant ring configured open access middle mile network which will serve the city’s anchor institutions as well as a backbone for a private provider to build a fiber to the home network.  This is remarkable because Brownsville has consistently ranked among the least connected cities in the United States, with over 66% of the population lacking access to a wireline connection of any kind.  In York, the County is pursuing a similar approach to Brownsville, albeit at a more regional level, and is deploying redundant ring configured open access middle mile infrastructure throughout the County with ARPA funding.

In summary, there is a great deal of momentum building on a number of fronts at the federal level which will have a lasting impact in beginning to close the digital divide, and Lit Communities is working on the front lines to help make building this digital bridge a reality. Learn how we can help YOUR community by visiting our website and reaching out, we can’t wait to bring you faster, better broadband.