Cities and urban counties across America are raising concerns that a recent rule from President Joe Biden’s administration could prevent them from tapping into $350 billion in coronavirus relief aid to expand high-speed Internet connections.
Biden aims to bring fast, affordable internet to every American home. The massive US rescue plan took a step in that direction by including broadband infrastructure among the primary uses of pandemic aid flowing to each city, county and state.
But an interim rule published by the US Treasury Department has limited broadband eligibility. It focuses on areas that lack reliable broadband, connecting devices to the Internet via cable or data line at download speeds of at least 25 megabits per second and upload speeds of at least 3 Mbps. .
This limit ensures funding for remote, rural areas with slow or no Internet service, and it matches the definition of broadband set by the Federal Communications Commission in 2015. But cities argue that the entitlement mark overlooks the realities of today’s internet needs.
Although broadband is already available in most cities, the speeds may not be fast enough to handle the many people trying to work, study and stream entertainment in a single home – due to the coronavirus pandemic. A typical scenario during The price can also be higher than for low-income residents.
“They’re basically prioritizing those rural areas over underserved urban areas where there’s a higher population,” said Detta Kissel, a retired Treasury Department attorney who helped write the agency’s rules and is now in the Washington, DC, suburb of Better Internet Advocates for the service said Arlington, Virginia.
Several cities, including Washington, Los Angeles, Milwaukee and San Antonio, have submitted public comments to the Treasury Department urging it to loosen the eligibility standard for spending pandemic relief money on broadband. Some want the Treasury to define low-service areas as download and upload speeds of less than 100 Mbps.
This will increase the number of eligible locations nationwide from about 11 million to 82 million homes and businesses, according to a study conducted for the Communications Association of America, which represents small and medium-sized Internet providers.
Cities argue that the Treasury should use the 100/100 Mbps eligibility limit as the same speed projects should achieve if they receive funding. A separate infrastructure bill working its way through Congress is more flexible, allowing some of its $65 billion in broadband funding to go to “underserved” areas, with download speeds of 100 Mbps and upload speeds of 20 Mbps. is lacking.
If the Treasury goes ahead with its rule, as originally written, sparsely populated areas currently lack broadband, some urban areas could see a jump in their Internet speeds. This doesn’t sit well with some mayors.
“The inner city of Memphis is in dire need of broadband connections as rural Tennessee,” said Memphis Mayor Jim Strickland, who seeks Treasury Department assurances before spending $20 million from a U.S. rescue plan on a broadband project.
Almost anywhere in Milwaukee residents already have access to at least one Internet provider that offers 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.
“If you don’t have a job and you can’t afford broadband, it’s kind of a cycle,” Henke said. “You’re out of distance learning, remote work, telemedicine and basically participating in a modern society.”
Henke said Milwaukee has applied for a $12.5 million grant from Wisconsin’s portion of the US rescue plan and will pay $2.5 million of its own pandemic relief funding to expand affordable broadband to more parts of the city. . But the city wants the Treasury Department to elaborate on the “narrow words” of its ruling.
Although the public comment period ended in July, the Treasury has not set a date for publishing the final version of the rule. A Treasury official said the department is thoroughly reviewing the comments, which are likely to “continue in decline.”
US Sen. Ron Wyden, an Oregon Democrat who chairs the Senate Finance Committee, is among those urging the Treasury Department to adopt a wider eligibility threshold. They wrote that it would be “gravely misguided” to assume that communities are adequately served by the “extremely outdated” broadband benchmarks set by the department.
Broadband industry groups have urged the Treasury to stick with its original plan to target funding to areas with generally the slowest Internet speeds.
“Instead of reinvesting in places that already have broadband to make it better,” said Patrick Haley, general counsel for USTelecom, “pandemic relief money should go to places that have no broadband”. , whose membership includes AT&T. Verizon and others.
Cable industry conglomerate NCTA urged treasury officials to further tighten the eligibility. It seeks to limit the number of households that already have fast service that can be included in areas targeted for improvement. It also seeks to remove the potential for locally subjective judgments about areas that lack reliable service.
Industry groups said allowing improvements in areas that already meet minimum speed limits could divert money away from needy, hard-to-reach areas – potentially after federal funds are spent leaving them without service.
According to a study by the Communications Association of America, it could cost between $20 billion and $37 billion to bring super-fast Internet service to every location that currently lacks 25/3 Mbps speeds. That cost jumps to between $106 billion and $179 billion when covering all areas that currently lack speeds of 100/100 Mbps.
“As a matter of priority, we think it’s best to start with areas where there is least,” said Ross Lieberman, the association’s senior vice president of government affairs.
Although most complaints about the Treasury Department’s rule have come from large cities, some residents in rural areas have also raised concerns.
Charlie Hopkins, a retired computer hardware and software designer, owns a home on a Maine island that is accessible only by boat. Internet speeds at his home were recorded as barely 5 Mbps for download and just 0.4 Mbps for uploading, when recently tested for The Associated Press.
Because some homes have faster speeds, Hopkins is concerned that the Treasury Department’s rule could make it difficult for the island to get money to improve its Internet. He said broadband is essential to attract and retain residents.
“Other cities and towns in Maine, especially cities, are getting high-speed fiberoptic-based Internet,” Hopkins said. “I don’t like being in a situation where we’re essentially being told, ‘Well, you’re at the end of the earth, so you don’t deserve to.'”