Stay-At-Home Orders Drive Broadband Expansion

Identified as a federal policy priority in 2009, broadband, or high-speed internet, remains one of the top infrastructure issues facing the country. However, as families continue to work and learn from home, it’s more essential than ever to invest in smart broadband policy for all communities.  Luckily, government programs and relief packages are providing a new path for states to improve wireless in rural areas where broadband has not historically been available.

The $150 billion Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act, approved on March 27, 2020, is just one example. $2 billion of the CARES was earmarked to provide support for the transition to fully remote life, including distance learning, telehealth, and broadband expansion. Over 25 states took advantage – including:  Alabama, California, Georgia, Idaho, Iowa, Kansas, Mayland, Michigan, Mississippi, Missouri, Montana, Nevada, New Hampshire, New York, North Carolina, North Dakota, Oklahoma, Oregon, South Carolina, Utah, Vermont, Virginia, West Virginia, and Wisconsin.

State, local, and tribal governments were eligible to apply for tech/broadband-specific grants. However, there are some key restrictions for this funding – which can only be used:

  • Programs that are directly connected to COVID-19
  • Have no previous budget allocated/ approved prior March 27.
  • On Dec. 30, 2020, unused funds will revert to the federal government.

Other government programs have ramped up pre-established programs to provide needed relief during the pandemic. On Thursday, October 29th, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) launched the first phase of its new Rural Digital Opportunity Fund auction, which will target over six million homes and businesses in unserved census blocks. The auction will provide internet companies with $20 billion in subsidies over the next 10 years and hopes to connect roughly 10 million Americans who don’t have any internet access or are on slow speeds.

The Department of Agriculture (USDA) has also launched a smaller rural broadband pilot. In September and October, the agency announced over $516 million in ReConnect rural broadband grants and loans, drawing from a $550 million pot that Congress authorized last December.