Congress Provides More Money for Rural Broadband Deployment

Friday, March 25, 2022

Weekly Digest

 You’re reading the Benton Institute for Broadband & Society’s Weekly Digest, a recap of the biggest (or most overlooked) broadband stories of the week. The digest is delivered via e-mail each Friday.

Round-Up for the Week of March 21-25, 2022

Kevin Taglang
Taglang

On March 15, 2022, President Joe Biden signed the Consolidated Appropriations Act, 2022 which provides funding through September 30, 2022 for projects and activities of the Federal Government. Much of the coverage of the law highlights the $13.6 billion in funding to address Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and the impact on surrounding countries. But there’s also more funding for broadband in the new law. And, with the return of earmarks—now known as “congressionally directed spending” or “community-project funding”—some specific broadband projects will now be funded.

Rural Development and Infrastructure

The law provides a total of nearly $4 billion for rural development programs. Over $550 million of these development funds are targeted to expand broadband service in rural areas to provide economic development opportunities and improved education and healthcare services. 

More Money for ReConnect

The Consolidated Appropriations Act, 2022 allocates $450 million for the ReConnect Program housed at the Department of Agriculture’s Rural Utilities Service (RUS). This is in addition to the $2 billion provided for the ReConnect Program in the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act.

The ReConnect Program offers loans, grants, and loan-grant combinations to facilitate broadband deployment in areas of rural America that currently do not have sufficient access to broadband. Support is available for:

  1. Corporations,
  2. Limited Liability Companies and Limited Liability Partnerships,
  3. Cooperatives and mutual organizations,
  4. State and local governments,
  5. Territories and possessions of the United States, and
  6.  Indian Tribes.

For a project to be eligible for ReConnect support, at least 90 percent of the households to be served must be located in a rural area without access to broadband at speeds of 25 Mbps downstream and 3 Mbps upstream (25/3). Similar to the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act, supported projects must build networks that offer broadband at speeds of least 100/20 Mbps.

The 100/20-speed requirement is actually a departure from recent RUS policy. An October 2021 public notice called for 100 Mbps symmetrical service to every premise in the proposed funded service area. The Consolidated Appropriations Act, 2022 makes reference to a Congressional explanatory statement that includes further directives on the law. There we read that Congress is concerned that the October 2021 ReConnect funding announcement dictates build-out speeds that are not “technology neutral” and could inflate deployment and consumer access costs. Hence the Consolidated Appropriations Act, 2022 “sets the build out speeds to ensure that all broadband technologies have equal access to the program,” the statement explains.

The statement also encourages the Secretary of Agriculture to eliminate or revise the awarding of extra points under the ReConnect program to applicants from states without restrictions on broadband delivery by utilities service providers in order to ensure this criterion is not a determining factor for funding awards. The statement says all utilities and broadband technologies should be treated equally in the application process.

Earmarked ReConnect Funding

The statement directs RUS to adopt some procedural changes in the ReConnect Program including:

  • Working to expeditiously disburse ReConnect funds once grants and loans are awarded,
  • Examining and appropriately adjusting and lowering the collateral requirements within ReConnect Loan Agreements, Grant Agreements, or Loan/Grant Agreements to ensure greater Program access, 
  • Making Reconnect more efficient, including collaborating with the Rural Electric Division to ensure that all utilities and broadband technologies are treated equally in the application process, and 
  • Increasing transparency, encouraging the Secretary of Agriculture to: 
    • follow the notice and comment rulemaking procedures with respect to all program administration and activities, including publishing a written decision on RUS’s website of how challenges were decided and the agency’s reasons for such decision, and
    • hold listening sessions prior to announcing the next round of funding availability and to address comments made during those sessions in the funding announcement to increase transparency.

In the statement, Congress directs the Secretary of Agriculture to allow entities of any structure, including partnerships and infrastructure applications, to apply for ReConnect support as long as sufficient assurances are given that broadband service will be provided to the subject area through contractual arrangements. 

The statement reminds the Department of Agriculture to avoid efforts that could duplicate existing networks built by private investment or those built leveraging and utilizing other Federal programs. Senator Roger Wicker (R-MS) recently raised concerns about “overbuilding” in a letter to the Pandemic Response Accountability Committee. The Congressional statement directs USDA to continue to coordinate with the Department of Commerce’s National Telecommunications and Information Administration and the Federal Communications Commission in a transparent manner to ensure wherever possible that any funding provided to support the deployment of last-mile broadband infrastructure is targeted to areas that are currently unserved. In any areas where a provider is already subject to a buildout obligation of 25/3 Mbps or greater for fixed terrestrial broadband pursuant to a commitment to another government entity, RUS is to take that funding into account to prevent the duplication of services financed by Federal support.

The FCC’s Rural Digital Opportunity Fund aims to support broadband deployment to the same rural areas targeted by the ReConnect program. The Congressional statement says entities that are subject to existing commitments for supported rural broadband deployment and are applying for Reconnect funds to bring service offerings to the ReConnect speed requirement should be given a scoring preference by RUS. This preference includes areas pending FCC final approval of a Rural Digital Opportunity Fund award for two years after the applicable FCC application deadline.

The statement encourages RUS to prioritize projects financed through public-private partnerships and projects where Federal funding will not exceed 50 percent of the project’s total cost.

Finally, Congress is concerned that states and territories outside the contiguous United States are having difficulty participating in the USDA broadband programs. The statement encourages the Secretary of Agriculture to consider grants or loans for satellite, or other technologies, if such middle-mile infrastructure predominantly serves a city or town with a population of 50,000 or fewer people and does not lead to overbuilding.

Some ReConnect funding is being directed to specific projects.

Rep Douglas LaMalfa (R-CA-1) requested that Plumas-Sierra Telecommunications receive $4 million for broadband expansion for his district in northeast California.    

Rep Robin Kelly (D-IL-02) requested that the Illinois Department of Commerce and Economic Opportunity receive $3 million for the Pembroke Township Broadband Expansion project. The project would extend scalable access to approximately 850 residences, businesses, and community anchor institutions throughout the entire 52-square-mile Pembroke Township footprint. Pembroke is a very rural, historically impoverished, and dramatically un/underserved community that lacks communications and energy infrastructure, including wireline broadband, cellular, and natural gas.

Rep David Trone (D-MD-06) requested $ 883,574 for broadband expansion in Garrett County, Maryland. The grant will cover 75 percent of the project’s costs, according to Rep Trone. “Then the county will cover the other 25 percent. It’s going to connect 270 households, 24 farms, and 17 businesses.” 

Rep Jack Bergman (R-MI-01) and Sens Gary Peters (D-MI) and Debbie Stabenow (D-MI) requested that $1.2 million go to Northern Michigan University for broadband expansion. The support will enable Northern Michigan University (NMU) to expand LTE broadband service to rural communities in the Upper Peninsula and northeastern Lower Peninsula through its Educational Access Network. NMU’s expansion project is scheduled to be completed within a year. It will provide designated communities with new high-speed, 5G-capable wireless LTE broadband. Additionally, NMU officials indicated that the project will promote the communities’ ability to ensure sustainable futures through internet-based wastewater treatment monitoring; no-cost library internet service; mobile internet service for public works vehicles; mobile hotspots for schools and tribal communities; and assistance with the ability to control and monitor equipment, perform research in community databases, and access maps and infrastructure documents—all remotely. NMU also has enabled mobile data connections for law enforcement to access state and federal information networks.

Rep Angie Craig (D-MN-02) and Sens Amy Klobuchar (D-MN) and Tina Smith (D-MN) requested that $3.21 million in ReConnect support be directed to Goodhue County, Minnesota. The funds will provide broadband coverage to multiple rural unserved and under-served areas in the county. 

Sens Klobuchar and Smith also teamed with Rep Pete Stauber (R-MN-05) on a request for $5,576,250 to complete broadband initiatives in Pine County, Minnesota. The investment will help to bring high-speed internet to the nearly 54 percent of households in Pine County that currently lack connectivity. 

In New Hampshire, Rep Chris Pappas (D-NH-01) and Sen Jeanne Shaheen (D-NH) requested that $1. 65 million go to the town of Sandwich for broadband expansion.

Rep Teresa Fernandez (D-NM-03) requested $879,506 for the city of Espanola, New Mexico. The funding would be used for installing 30, five-gigahertz signal distribution points—antennas that will send and receive wireless signals—at nine sites to provide high-speed, fixed-wireless service to Española residents and businesses. The establishment of this network of antennas will make service available to at least 5,000 homes and 380 businesses in the community. 

Rep Elise Stefanik (R-NY-21) joined Sens Chuck Schumer (D-NY) and Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY) in a request for $500,000 for Herkimer County, New York. The ReConnect funds will provide more than 3,900 houses and businesses in northern Herkimer County with better access to high-speed broadband.

Also in New York, Rep Chris Jacobs (R-NY-27) joined Sens Schumer and Gillibrand in a $3,877,500 request for Niagara and Orleans counties. ReConnect support will go toward the two counties’ decade-long struggle to finally be able to provide high-speed broadband for its unserved and underserved residents. In August 2021, both Orleans and Niagara counties passed resolutions to award a bid to RTO Wireless, which is under the Microsoft umbrella, to connect Niagara and Orleans with fiber optic cable using 15 existing communication towers in Niagara and seven in Orleans.

Sens Schumer and Gillibrand also teamed with Rep Antonio Delgado (D-NY-19) on an $829,594 request to aid broadband expansion in upstate New York. The ReConnect funding will expand broadband in the towns of Ghent, Canaan, New Lebanon, and Austerlitz, allowing more than 300 homes and businesses to be connected to high-speed broadband.

Sens Schumer and Gillibrand joined Rep Paul Tonko (D-NY-20) in a request for $1,687,500 from ReConnect for Westerlo, New York. A survey in Westerlo found that 61 percent of survey respondents either didn’t have internet access at home or were unhappy with their speeds. Berne-Knox-Westerlo School Superintendent Timothy Mundell announced in 2020 that 30 percent of Berne-Knox-Westerlo’s student body had inadequate internet. The project aims to connect 900 homes and businesses. Westerlo will contribute $562,500 towards the project.

Rep Claudia Tenney (R-NY-22) requested $212,022 for broadband expansion in the village of Sherburne, New York. Sherburne, located in Chenango County, is considering building a municipal broadband network that cost up to $3 million. Residents in Sherburne currently lack reliable access to even relatively low download speeds, making online classes and telehealth a challenge. Large swaths of Chenango County experience similar deficits in broadband. The village is considering taking out a 15-year bond to cover initial capital expenditures for the broadband project. Residents will pay back the bond through their monthly internet fee. The price of enrolling in Sherburne’s broadband program will go toward covering the project’s capital expenditures, operation and maintenance costs, and fees from individual internet service providers.

Rep Mile Kelly (R-PA-16) requested $500,000 for the Corry Area Tech Center and Hub. ReConnect funding will go toward installing high-speed broadband infrastructure, a regional cloud system, work-at-home job training, and other technology-related initiatives. “When we met with officials from the City of Corry, Corry Redevelopment Authority, and Charles Gray from Impact Corry, it was clear that the City of Corry could use this funding to improve and expand high-speed broadband internet in the area,” Rep Kelly said. “The COVID-19 pandemic showed us just how critical broadband internet is, especially in rural America.”

Rep Pete Sessions (R-TX-17) requested $1.5 million for the Brazos Valley Council of Governments (BVCOG).  BVCOG successfully coordinated the development of a health care consortia to bring affordable, high-speed broadband to rural Brazos Valley healthcare providers.

Rep Veronica Escobar (D-TX-16) requested $2,85 million for the county of El Paso’s Cotton Valley broadband expansion. This funding will be used by El Paso County to provide reliable access to public broadband service, via wireless mesh service, to an estimated 3,256 students across the Fabens and Tornillo school districts. The Cotton Valley Connect Project by Digital El Paso is based on a successfully piloted proof-of-concept that was launched by Canutillo school district in 2020 as a response to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Rep A. Donald McEachin (D-VA-4) requested $2,643,508 for Charles City County. The funding will help ensure nearly 100 percent of Charles City County residents will have access to high-speed broadband internet. 

Rep Bobby Scott (D-VA-03) requested $318,750 for the County of Isle of Wight, Virginia.  The funding will be used to cover the costs of construction, equipment, and deployment of broadband services to 40 residential homes, 1 business, and a church in a rural unserved community outside of, but near, the Town of Smithfield. 

Rep Kim Schrier (D-WA-08) requested $1,286,390 for the Chelan County Public Utility District in Washington. This remote area of Chelan does not have access to high-speed broadband or cellular service so this project will design and build the fiber-based infrastructure to serve a minimum of 220 homes with the excess system capacity to meet new growth in the area

Distance Learning and Telehealth Support

The Consolidated Appropriations Act, 2022 allocates $62.5 million to be used for grants for telemedicine and distance learning services in rural areas. Such funds may be used to finance the construction of facilities and systems providing telemedicine services and distance learning services. Similar to ReConnect funding, some Distance Learning, Telemedicine, and Broadband Program funding is being directed to specific projects.

The Distance Learning and Telemedicine program helps rural communities use the unique capabilities of telecommunications to connect to each other and to the world, overcoming the effects of remoteness and low population density. For example, this program can link teachers and medical service providers in one area to students and patients in another. Entities eligible for awards include:

  • Most State and local governmental entities,
  • Federally-recognized Tribes,
  • Non-profits,
  • For-profit businesses, and
  • Consortia of eligible entities.

Earmarked Distance Learning and Telehealth Funding

Sen Dick Durbin (D-IL) requested $115,000 for the Illini Community Hospital’s Rural Telemedicine Initiative to expand the program covering Pittsfield, a town of 4,200 and a service area of 12,000. The funds will be used to add three telemedicine systems to link patients receiving care on the Illini Community Hospital campus with specialists in Quincy and other communities. Funds will also be used for the purchase of iPads, Wi-Fi hotspots, and additional remote monitoring equipment used to keep track of patient progress following discharge from the hospital. These systems are used with patients that have conditions placing them at higher risk for readmission or emergency room visits.

Sens Martin Heinrich (D-NM) and Ben Ray Luján (D-NM) requested $104,000 for the Ben Archer Health Center and $890,000 for the New Mexico State Library. 

Senator Bernie Sanders (I-VT) requested $500,000 for Vermont Program for Quality Health Care in Montpelier, Vermont. This project will help promote equitable access to culturally competent telehealth services by identifying under-served geographic regions, priority individuals, and associated health care providers for rapid deployment of telehealth equipment, basic digital literacy, and technical assistance

For West Virginia, Sens Joe Manchin (D-WV) and Shelley Capito (R-WV) requested $462,000 for the Pocahontas County Board of Education, and $111,000 for Shepherd University. And Sen Capito requested $328,000 for West Virginia University. The Pocahontas project will place devices into the hands and homes of K-12 students and teachers. The Shepherd University Dual Enrollment Hub Sites provide distance dual enrollment courses. 

Additional Broadband Provisions

Telehealth Flexibility

The Consolidated Appropriations Act, 2022 amends the Social Security Act to include new language that extends several telehealth flexibilities for 151 days (five months) after the end of a public health emergency declared by the Secretary of the Department of Health and Human Services. The flexibilities include:

  1. Allowing the originating sites for telehealth services to include any site in the United States at which the Medicare beneficiary is located at the time the service is furnished, including their home;
  2. Allowing Federally Qualified Health Centers and Rural Health Clinics to serve as telehealth service providers (i.e., serve as a distant site); and
  3. Providing coverage and payment for telehealth services furnished via an audio-only telecommunications system.

The current public health emergency declaration is set to expire on April 16, 2022. If the Secretary of Health and Human Services does not renew the public health emergency for another 90 days, the above flexibilities will continue through September 14, 2022.

Cybersecurity

The Consolidated Appropriations Act, 2022 includes $2.6 billion in funding for the Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency (CISA) to bolster the nation’s cyberdefenses.

The law also includes the Strengthening American Cybersecurity Act of 2022 which requires critical infrastructure owners and operators to report to CISA within 72 hours if they are experiencing a substantial cyberattack and within 24 hours of making a ransomware payment. The provision gives CISA the authority to subpoena entities that fail to report cybersecurity incidents or ransomware payments. Organizations that fail to comply with the subpoena can be referred to the Department of Justice.

The new law requires CISA to launch a program that will warn organizations of vulnerabilities that ransomware actors exploit, and directs the Director of CISA to establish a joint ransomware task force to coordinate federal efforts, in consultation with industry, to prevent and disrupt ransomware attacks. The federal rulemaking process that will formalize aspects of this legislation also requires substantial consultation with industry and the provision creates a federal council to coordinate, deconflict, and harmonize federal incident reporting requirements to reduce duplicative regulations.

Monitoring Individuals’ Internet Use

Section 725 of the Consolidated Appropriations Act, 2022 expressly prohibits any Federal agency:

  • collecting, reviewing, or creating any aggregation of data, derived from any means, that includes any personally identifiable information relating to an individual’s access to or use of any Federal Government internet site of the agency; or
  • entering into any agreement with a third party (including another government agency) to collect, review, or obtain any aggregation of data, derived from any means, that includes any personally identifiable information relating to an individual’s access to or use of any nongovernmental Internet site.

Internet Freedom

The law also allocates $77.5 million to promote freedom globally, but prioritized for countries whose governments restrict freedom of expression on the internet, and are important to the national interest of the United States. When possible, these funds are to be matched by other sources including from the public sector. 

Since 2002, the United States Agency for Global Media (formerly the Broadcasting Board of Governors) has been involved in activities to circumvent internet censorship by foreign governments in order to distribute news content and better provide a forum for free expression in closed societies. The USAGM’s Internet Freedom program supports, per congressional appropriations guidance, global internet freedom for the expansion of unrestricted access to information on the internet. The Consolidated Appropriations Act, 2022 allocates $27 million to Internet freedom programs as part of the Open Technology Fund (OTF) to scale existing and new tools to counter censorship and surveillance technologies around the world. Not less than $4 million is available for internet freedom programs for Hong Kong, including legal and other support for democracy activists.

Funds are also available to promote internet freedom in the Russian Federation and other countries in Europe, Eurasia, and Central Asia. These funds will be made available for programs that support the efforts of civil society to counter the development of repressive internet-related laws and regulations, including countering threats to combat violence against bloggers and other users; and to enhance digital security training and capacity building for democracy activists. Funds are also available for research of key threats to internet freedom; and the continued development of technologies that provide or enhance access to the internet, including circumvention tools that bypass internet blocking, filtering, and other censorship techniques used by authoritarian governments.

Quick Bits

Weekend Reads (resist tl;dr)

ICYMI from Benton

Upcoming Events

Mar 28—Who Makes the Rules Governing Tech? The U.S. Experience: High-Tech Rules of the Road (Harvard)

Mar 29—Bipartisan Tech 2022 (Next Century Cities)

Mar 29—Digital Equity Forum (Washington State Department of Commerce)

Mar 30—Advances in Cable Broadband: It’s Not Your Parents’ Cable Broadband Anymore (CENIC)

Mar 30—Digital Equity Forum (Washington State Department of Commerce)

Mar 31—FCC Oversight Hearing (House Commerce Committee)

Apr 6—Disinformation and the Erosion of Democracy (University of Chicago)

Apr 6—Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act Broadband Programs Pre-NOFO Technical Assistance Webinar #3 (NTIA)

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