A Comcast truck outside the Virginia Capitol. (Photo by Ned Oliver/Virginia Mercury)
WASHINGTON — The U.S. Treasury Department on Tuesday announced the first state awards will go to Virginia, Louisiana, New Hampshire and West Virginia in a massive federal effort to bring affordable, high-speed internet to all American homes and businesses.
Projects in the four states are the first to receive funding as part of a $10 billion capital project fund for broadband access, included as part of Congress’ 2021 COVID-19 relief bill, the American Rescue Plan.
The program is one of a spate of new initiatives to try to make high-speed internet attainable for all Americans.
“COVID drove home the point that broadband is not a ‘nice to have,’ it is an economic necessity,” Virginia Democratic Sen. Mark Warner, who pushed for the broadband plan in the Senate, said in a call with reporters on Monday to announce the awards.
High-speed internet remains out of reach for tens of millions of Americans, many in rural areas. Those living in more remote areas are among the last to get access because for most big broadband companies, it has not been profitable enough to connect to the small number of households there.
Nearly 20 percent of rural Americans do not have access to 25/3 Mbps or faster broadband service, according to the 2021 report on access from the Federal Communications Commission.
Urgency of access
The pandemic demonstrated the urgency of internet access, as people relied on remote connections for medical visits, school and work.
In response, Congress allocated record funding levels to expand broadband access to underserved communities — through the infrastructure bill, various COVID-19 relief bills and the fiscal 2022 spending bill. The new cash-inflows create a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for states to connect nearly everyone to high speed internet.
“Three to four years from now, we should not have an excuse if you are not able to get broadband,” said Warner.
The American Rescue Plan has already spent or committed more than $25 billion to invest in affordable high-speed internet and connectivity. Of that sum, $10 billion is through the capital projects fund, which will provide resources directly to states
Those working on the program say this new push of funding and programs from state and federal governments represents a new era. Gene Sperling, the White House American Rescue Plan coordinator, said he has been working on various efforts to close the digital divide since the Clinton administration and has never seen anything like what is happening now.
“Without question there has never been anything like a pandemic to create a national teaching moment that we cannot have equality unless all Americans have access to high speed affordable internet,” Sperling said.
Too many programs?
But a federal watchdog agency recently criticized the government for excessive programs to expand internet access. There are more than 100 federal programs administered by 15 different agencies, according to a report last week from the Government Accountability Office. The oversight agency said it has led to a fragmented, overlapping patchwork of programs that should be synchronized.
Jacob Leibenluft, who oversees this program for the Treasury Department, said his agency has worked with others across the federal government to collaborate on data and programs to try to manage around the issue.
The first grants include $177 million to Louisiana to connect nearly 88,500 homes that lack internet access through a competitive grant program in the state. State officials estimate it will close the digital divide for about 25 percent of those in the state without high-speed internet.
Virginia will get $220 million to expand high-speed internet access to more than 76,800 homes and businesses — about 28 percent% of those that lack internet.
New Hampshire will receive $50 million to bring high-speed internet service to 15,000 homes and businesses through the state’s Broadband Contract Program. The program aims to connect the most underserved rural areas of the state and should bring high-speed internet to half of those who currently lack it, according to state officials.
These states are the first to receive grants because they were the first fully developed plans to come in, according to the Treasury Department. The agency will continue to approve plans from states on a rolling basis. The deadline for states to submit their plans is in late September.
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