The COVID-19 pandemic has accelerated the pace at which education, work, health care, and even civic engagement moved to the digital space. However, millions of Americans are cut off from high-speed internet, and increasingly cut off from crucial parts of society. Local governments from across the country recognize the significance of this problem, and according to a CivicPulse survey from early 2021, many are planning on using stimulus funding to address it. Overall, one fifth of local governments indicated that they might use new relief funding to expand broadband.
In January 2021, CivicPulse surveyed 494 local government officials’ COVID-19 relief spending, asking how funds received were spent and how their local government might spend additional support. Only 9% said they spent 2020 relief funds on broadband expansion, but 20% said they may spend future relief funds in this area.
When we looked at the results by government type, geographic region, or population size, there were only minor differences. For example, 23% of governments serving areas with fewer than 5,000 residents indicated that they might use funds to expand broadband, compared to 27% of government serving areas with more than 25,000 residents. Across all types of governments, local officials indicated a higher likelihood of using the newer funding for broadband compared to the previous funding.
At the time of the CivicPulse survey, the exact provisions of the American Rescue Plan (ARP) were still being worked out. The final bill includes multiple paths for funding for broadband investment. The four key areas are:
Emergency Connectivity Fund – This provision provides $7 billion to schools and libraries who provided broadband service to students and patrons. Importantly, it also allows schools and libraries to seek reimbursement for providing broadband access in homes rather than just on their premises.
Homeowner Assistance Fund - $10 billion to states to help households cover mortgages or other home expenses including utilities and internet access.
Capital Projects Fund - $10 billion to states “to ensure that all communities have access to the high-quality, modern infrastructure needed to thrive, including internet access.”
State and Local Recovery Funds - $350 billion to states and local governments. One of the explicit allowances of the funding is “[t]o make necessary investments in water, sewer, or broadband infrastructure.”
While it is known that broadband connectivity is a problem, the exact number of Americans affected remains debated. A 2021 Pew survey indicated that 77% of Americans report having broadband in their home, although that number falls to 57% of Americans in households within incomes less than $30,000. The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) maintains a map of broadband coverage that estimates 21.3 million Americans live in places that do not have broadband internet available, but critics have claimed that the true number is closer to 42 million. And Microsoft issued its own report showing that 157 million people in the U.S. do not use internet at broadband speeds based on tracking users of its software programs. It is also important to note that even in places where broadband is available, the cost alone can place it out of reach for many. Part of broadband expansion is not only improving the physical infrastructure, but also making sure it’s affordable.
Those with steady broadband access may not realize how vital it has become for many parts of society. Remote work, virtual schooling, and even online constituent engagement all require a level of internet connectivity that is simply not available to millions in the United States. As more services moved online because of the COVID-19 pandemic, areas that did not have reliable high-speed internet, and those who could not afford it, suffered disproportionately.
Expanding broadband to all areas of the country and making it affordable, is not necessarily an easy project. The first step may be acknowledging it as a problem and making a commitment to address it. The results from the January CivicPulse survey show that many local governments are aware of the issue and want to solve it. The funds provided by the ARP, and a possible infrastructure bill being debated in Washington, may provide them the means to do so.