November 4, 2021 – The U.S. Department of the Treasury, responsible for drafting the rules for how state and local governments can spend various federal relief funds made available for broadband expansion by the American rescue plan, recently published Guiding lines [pdf] rule the Capital projects fund, a pot of 10 billion dollars available to states, territories and Tribal governments [pdf] to deal with the need for improved internet connectivity exposed during the pandemic.
Compared to when the Treasury released rules rule the State and local budget recovery fund earlier this year this tour brought cheers in the place of taunts community broadband advocates, as we watch federal broadband policy break new ground.
The flexibility the Capital Projects Fund gives state and local governments in deciding how to spend relief funds is what broadband advocates are most excited about. CPF applicants are able to creatively use the money to meet the critical needs of their community laid bare by the Covid-19 pandemic, provided the resulting project directly enables remote working, health education and monitoring.
The treasure advice for the CPF [pdf] takes a holistic approach, as it not only invests in the deployment of broadband infrastructure, but directly addresses affordability and digital literacy, which are long-overlooked barriers to broadband adoption by federal broadband programs. In addition, the new rules include wording ensuring that projects that use CPF funds take into consideration local needs, including requirements to survey communities to determine what exactly is an “affordable” price for internet service. monthly, the requirements to simultaneously invest in infrastructure and digital skills training, and the requirements to examine how projects can strengthen workforce training and development.
The CPF rules give applicants clear authority to decide what is considered “affordable, reliable and unserved” in their respective communities. The program also expands the definition of “unserved” to reflect that Internet service in an area is affordable. If it turns out that the existing high speed Internet service in a community is not affordable, this will now be considered sufficient to report that particular area as “unserved”.
Other gems contained in the guidelines include: a new focus on funding scalable fiber-optic infrastructure, increasing investment in historically disadvantaged communities, and prioritizing investments in owned or co-owned infrastructure. by local municipalities, nonprofits and cooperatives – “providers with less pressure to generate profits and with a commitment to serve entire communities,” says Treasury directives [pdf].
Turning the page on federal broadband programs
Unique to this program is the focus on identifying where affordability is a barrier to broadband adoption and the emphasis on the importance of delivering symmetrical speeds of 100 megabits per second, reports CTC Technology & Energy.
The CPF guidelines ask applicants to incorporate plans to address affordability into their project proposals in new ways. Funding recipients are required to report pricing data as part of an ongoing effort to monitor costs to subscribers. The guidelines require recipients of CPF funding to participate in federal broadband grant programs, such as the current one. Emergency broadband service or subsequent federal programs that subsidize the cost of monthly Internet access. In addition, recipients are encouraged to “include at least one low-cost option offered at speeds sufficient for a household with multiple users to simultaneously telecommute and engage in distance learning.”
Additionally, under new CPF rules, the Treasury requires that eligible projects go beyond providing connection speeds demanded by the federal government in the past, underscoring the importance of funding projects that will provide speeds. symmetrical 100 Mbps and encouraging recipients to invest funds in fiber infrastructure where feasible, “as such, advanced technology better meets future needs”. The guidelines recognize the need for more robust download speeds, as evidenced by Treasury’s updated definition of an unserved area – “an area that cannot receive affordable, reliable fixed wireline service of at least 100 / 20 Mbps “. The guidelines also encourage CPF beneficiaries to prioritize investing in projects that will result in last mile connections.
Another strength of the Capital Projects Fund is that the program is designed to help restore a sense of community connectedness in an era of social distancing. To this end, Treasury guidelines focus on funding requests to build and connect community education centers and other anchor institutions, which can tailor initiatives and programs to meet needs. unique to the community. The CPF guidelines list the multiple possibilities that applicants for the construction of multi-purpose community facilities should consider using the funding for, including:
- career counseling services that provide community members with the knowledge they need to work, including digital literacy training programs
- activities to acquire knowledge and skills undertaken as part of a person’s participation in school, an academic program, an after-school program, a socio-emotional development program for students or young people, an internship or a professional development program
- full-service community school construction or improvement projects that provide a full academic program to their students and adult education in the community at large
- projects that provide health surveillance and a wider range of services, including health education courses
To learn more about the possibility of using CPF funds to fight digital inclusion, listen Episode 14 of our bonus podcast series, “Why NC Broadband Matters.”
Don’t make the same mistakes twice
It’s encouraging to see that the Treasury Department has been responsive in fixing what its first set of rules missed. The rules Treasury released in May 2021 governing aid sent directly to local authorities within the framework of the Local Budget Recovery Fund asked beneficiaries to concentrate investments in broadband on unserved areas, rigidly defined under this program as areas that do not have a reliable 25/3 Mbps service available.
Reading these rules strictly would severely limit the ability of non-rural communities to invest in the broadband networks they need by prioritizing broadband investments only in rural areas. These rules would essentially leave out more densely populated cities, which are often served by legacy providers offering speeds above 25/3 Mbps, but which have few affordable and reliable options for internet service. Previous Treasury rules also did not prioritize funding for community broadband networks.
After the publication of these rules, city leaders across the country rallied to draw attention to the restrictive language governing the Local and state tax recovery funds. This led Treasury officials to publish an FAQ clarifying and broadening the rules a bit; and helped push Treasury officials to create improved guidelines governing the Capital Projects Fund.
Ongoing application process
States, territories, freely associated states and Tribal governments [pdf] are eligible for CPF assistance, which will be awarded in the form of block grants. Although local governments are not eligible to be the direct beneficiaries of these grants, states are encouraged to allocate a portion of their award to local governments, nonprofits, and cooperatives.
The deadline for states, territories and freely associated states to submit a grant application and plan through the Treasury submission portal is December 27, 2021. For Tribal governments, the app also serves as a subsidy plan. The deadline for tribal governments to apply for funding through the Treasury submission portal is June 1, 2022.
Described as a “60 second process” by the Senior Broadband Policy Advisor for the US Treasury, Jeffrey Sural, during a recent National Digital Inclusion Alliance webinar, to submit the initial application, applicants must indicate their desired scholarship amount, summarize how funds will be allocated, designate an authorized representative or point of contact, and sign a grant agreement.
There are multiple eligible uses of CPF funding, but program guidelines categorize acceptable uses of funds into three main categories: broadband infrastructure projects, digital connectivity technology projects and multi-use community facility projects.
- Broadband infrastructure projects are those that will result in the construction and deployment of broadband infrastructure.
- Digital connectivity technology projects are projects that make it easier to purchase or install devices such as laptops, desktops, and tablets.
- Multi-purpose community facilities projects are projects to build community education centers or anchor institutions that provide the public with access to computers with high-speed Internet service.
States will have access to a total of $ 9.8 billion from the Investment Projects Fund, of which $ 100 million is earmarked for tribes and an additional $ 100 million is earmarked for freely associated states. Each US state will likely create its own program to under-allocate CPF funds to local applicants. The results and impact of the program created by each state will likely vary. See the allocations available for each state here.
Editor’s Note: This article was written by Jericho Casper, reporter for the Community Broadband Network Initiative at the Institute for Local Self Reliance. Initially published on MuniNetworks.org on November 2, 2021, the piece is republished with permission.