KANSAS CITY (AP) – Cities and urban counties across the United States fear that a recent rule by President Joe Biden’s administration may prevent them from tapping into $ 350 billion in coronavirus aid to expand internet connections broadband.
Biden’s goal is to provide fast, affordable internet to every American home. The massive American Rescue Plan has taken a step in this direction by including broadband infrastructure among the primary uses of pandemic aid that is pouring into every city, county and state.
But one provisional rule issued by the US Treasury Department reduced broadband eligibility. It focuses on areas that lack reliable broadband, which connects devices to the internet via cable or data line, at download speeds of at least 25 megabits per second, and download speeds of at least 3 Mbps.
This threshold ensures funding for remote rural areas that have slow or no Internet service, and it meets the definition of broadband set by the Federal Communications Commission in 2015. But cities argue that the eligibility mark ignores the realities of today’s internet needs.
While most cities already have broadband, the speed may not yet be fast enough to handle multiple people in a house trying to work, study, and stream entertainment simultaneously – a common scenario. during the coronavirus pandemic. The price may also be more than what low-income residents can afford.
“They basically prioritize rural areas over underserved urban areas where there is more population,” said Detta Kissel, a retired Treasury Department lawyer who helped draft the agency’s rules. and now advocates for better Internet service in suburban Washington, DC. Arlington, Virginia.
Several cities, including Washington, Los Angeles, Milwaukee and San Antonio, have submitted public comments to the Treasury Department urging it to relax the eligibility standard for spending pandemic relief money on broadband. Some want the Treasury to define underserved areas as something less than 100 Mbps upload and download speeds.
This would increase the number of locations eligible for funding from about 11 million to 82 million homes and businesses nationwide, according to a study conducted for the America’s Communications Association, which represents small and medium-sized providers of media. ‘Internet access.
Cities argue that the Treasury should use an eligibility threshold of 100/100 Mbps because that’s the same speed projects are supposed to achieve if they receive funding. A separate infrastructure bill makes its way to Congress is more flexible, allowing a portion of its $ 65 billion in broadband funding to go to âunderservedâ areas without 100 Mbps download speeds and 20 Mbps upload speeds.
If the Treasury goes ahead with its rule as it was originally written, sparsely populated areas currently lacking broadband could overtake some urban areas in their internet speeds. This does not suit some mayors.
“Downtown Memphis is in dire need of a broadband connection like rural Tennessee,” said Memphis Mayor Jim Strickland, who wants Treasury Department insurance before spending the plan’s $ 20 million bailout for a broadband project.
Residents almost everywhere in Milwaukee already have access to at least one Internet service provider offering download speeds of 25 Mbps and upload speeds of 3 Mbps. But in some parts of the city, less than half of households subscribe to internet service because of its cost, said David Henke, the city’s chief information officer.
âIf you don’t have a job and can’t afford broadband, it’s kind of a cycle,â Henke said. âYou are excluded from distance learning, distance working, telemedicine and essentially participating in a modern society. “
Milwaukee has requested a $ 12.5 million grant from Wisconsin’s share of the US bailout and would contribute $ 2.5 million of its own pandemic relief money to expand affordable broadband to more parts of the city, said Henke. But the city wants the Treasury Department to broaden “the narrow wording” of its rule.
Although the public comment period ended in July, the Treasury has set no date for the release of the final version of the rule. A Treasury official said the department is undertaking a thorough review of the comments which “will likely continue into the fall.”
US Senator Ron Wyden, an Oregon Democrat who chairs the Senate Finance Committee, is among those urging the Treasury Department to adopt a broader eligibility threshold. He wrote that it would be “seriously wrong” to assume that communities are adequately served by the “woefully obsolete” broadband benchmark that the department has set.
Broadband industry groups have generally urged the Treasury to stick to its original plan of targeting the money in areas with the slowest internet speeds.
“Rather than reinvesting in places that already have broadband to make it better,” pandemic relief money should go to “places that have no broadband at all,” said Patrick Halley, general counsel at USTelecom, whose members include AT&T, Verizon and others.
Cable industry group NCTA has urged Treasury officials to tighten eligibility even further. He wants to limit the number of households that already have a faster service that can be included in the areas targeted for improvements. It also wants to remove the potential for subjective decisions at the local level about areas that lack reliable service.
Allowing improvements in areas that already meet minimum speed thresholds could divert money away from the most needy and hard-to-reach areas – potentially leaving them without service once the federal money is spent, industry groups have said.
According to the America’s Communications Association study, delivering super-fast Internet service to every location where 25/3 Mbps speeds are currently lacking could cost between $ 20 billion and $ 37 billion. This cost reaches between 106 and 179 billion dollars when it covers all areas currently without 100/100 Mbps speeds.
âWhen it comes to prioritization, we think it’s best to start with the areas that have it least,â said Ross Lieberman, senior vice president of government affairs for the association.
While most of the Treasury Department’s complaints about the rule come from large cities, some rural residents have also expressed concern.
Charlie Hopkins, a retired computer hardware and software designer, owns a home on an island in Maine accessible only by boat. Internet speeds at her home registered barely 5 Mbps for download and only 0.4 Mbps for download in a recent test for the Associated Press.
Because some homes have faster speeds, Hopkins is concerned that the Treasury Department rule will make it difficult for the island to secure funds to improve its internet. He said broadband is key to attracting and retaining residents.
âOther towns and cities in Maine, especially towns, benefit from high-speed fiber-based internet,â Hopkins said. âI don’t like being in a position where we’re basically being told, ‘Well, you’re at the end of the earth, so you don’t qualify. “”