Four states receive first allocations from $10 billion broadband fund

CHARLESTON, West Virginia — More than half a billion dollars in federal funding will be sent to four US states to expand broadband access as part of a broad national effort to provide affordable service to rural and low-income Americans , the US Treasury Department announced on Tuesday.

Louisiana, New Hampshire, Virginia and West Virginia are the first to benefit from this aspect of the $10 billion Coronavirus Capital Projects Fund, which is expected to bring internet service to 200,000 homes and businesses in the four states. It’s part of the $1.9 trillion coronavirus relief package signed by President Joe Biden in March 2021.

“There has never been anything like the pandemic to create a national teaching moment that we cannot have equal economic and educational opportunity unless all Americans and all regions, from urban America to the ‘rural America, have access to affordable high-speed internet service,’ Gene Sperling, a senior adviser to Biden, said on a call with reporters.

West Virginia is set to receive $136.3 million in funds from the Capital Projects Fund, including $219.8 million for Virginia, $50 million for New Hampshire and $176.7 million for Louisiana. All other states are also eligible and must submit plans to the Treasury Department by September 24 demonstrating how funding could meet critical needs.

Sen. Joe Manchin said it would make a “huge dent” in rolling out needed broadband in West Virginia, a rural state where the largest city has 50,000 people. The Federal Communications Commission estimates that there are more than 250,000 of West Virginia’s less than 2 million people who don’t have broadband access, and Manchin said even more people are likely unconnected. .

“We can’t help people recover from the pandemic or encourage new economic development in areas like West Virginia if we don’t have connectivity — it’s as simple as that,” the Democrat said. of West Virginia.

The first wave of federal broadband funding to states, territories, and tribal governments requires service providers building their networks to offer customer discounts and deliver services at download and upload speeds of at least 100 megabytes per second . Providers must participate in the FCC’s new Affordable Connectivity Program, which requires households with incomes at or below 200% of federal poverty guidelines to be eligible for rebates of up to $30 per month. or up to $75 per month on tribal land.

Census data shows nearly 16% of West Virginians live below the poverty line, or $27,750 in annual income for a family of four this year. Manchin said “almost every family in West Virginia” will qualify.

“There’s no excuse in the world for all of America, especially rural America, to be unconnected,” Manchin said. “And if we let this time pass, God help us all.”

The money isn’t the only recent federal allocation for broadband — billions more have been approved as part of the US bailout and bipartisan Infrastructure Act.

And more than 100 federal programs — administered by 15 agencies — already have some capacity to expand Internet access. The large number of programs “has led to a patchwork of fragmented and overlapping funding”, according to a Government Accountability Office report from late May.

“I’m not sure we’ve fully utilized all of our federal dollars,” Sen. Mark Warner said, noting that reliable internet access is a promise the government started making in the 1990s. “Frankly, in our country, we haven’t done a very good job of making that a reality.”

The Virginia Democrat said federal efforts over the past 30 years have been “sort of crippled,” with some networks only partially built or never completed at all. Faulty FCC cards that relied on companies’ self-reporting overestimated coverage and hampered efforts to subsidize Internet service in underserved rural areas. Too many programs only provided “episodic” funding, and some of the money went to startups that didn’t know how to network, he said.

Proponents say this program incorporates safeguards and accountability to ensure funding meets its objectives. State governments will need to work diligently with the Treasury to ensure that this money is doing its job.

“There will always have to be execution risk here,” Warner said. “By having both state and federal oversight, hopefully we can get it right.”

James V. Hayes