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The Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act of 2021

William Sederburg, Chair of the WNC Broadband Project
Kennedy Young, UNC-Asheville Student

On November 15, 2021, President Joe Biden signed the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act (IIJA). This action by the federal government funds a major expansion in broadband infrastructure and internet accessibility across the nation. Of the $1.2 trillion appropriated by the IIJA, more than $65 billion will go to improve broadband access and affordability, particularly in rural low-income areas. These funds will help to bridge the equity divide to create digital inclusion in the 21st century. The IIJA is very significant for Western North Carolina (WNC.)

Breakdown of Broadband Funding Provisions Impacting WNC:
The IIJA provides $65 billion for broadband. $42.45 billion will be available to the states for broadband projects ranging from network deployment to data collection. Each state will get at least $100 million. The rest of the $42.5 billion will be given to the states based on a formula. The formula for distributing the money will be written by the National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA). According to Nate Denny, Deputy Secretary of the NC Broadband and Digital Equity Office, NC is expected to receive nearly $1 billion from this fund (from comments during a zoom webinar.)

The availability of additional funds for building out the infrastructure will be of great interest to local Internet Service Providers and the general citizenry. However, before the funds can be allocated, an accurate map of served and unserved areas of the state needs to be completed by the FCC and state/federal regulations need to be coordinated. Implementation will be slowed down due to lack of fiber and a trained workforce. WNC faces an additional challenge in in assuring the formulas reflect the act cost of laying fiber, which in WNC is significantly higher than elsewhere due to rocky soil, mountainous terrain and a dispersed population.

Over the past two years, our region has been heavily engaged in mapping served and unserved geographic areas. WNC Broadband, through a partnership with UNCA’s National Environmental Modeling and Analysis Center (NEMAC) provided recommendations to the FCC about mapping procedures and has produced a map for Buncombe County. The map shows how served/unserved areas form a “swiss cheese” land scape filled with pockets of poor or missing service. The Land of Sky Regional Council and the Southwest Commission, with funds from the Dogwood Trust have led the regional effort to get people to participate in the state’s mapping survey and speed test.

In addition to grants for infrastructure, other areas of IIJA will help meet the needs of Western North Carolina. One billion is to be used to enhance “middle mile infrastructure”, which connects local providers to larger Internet access points. The “middle mile” funds may be of particular interest to ERC broadband which presently provides middle mile connections to local non-profit and educational institutions in WNC.

$600 million is appropriated for tax free “Private Activity Bonds” that local governments can use to help finance internet service providers who extend service to rural areas. The NTIA will provide details of how these funds are to be used within the next few months. It is unclear at this time if any part of WNC will qualify for the use of these funds and if the state will allow local governments to avail themselves of this program.

$14 billion of the Infrastructure Bill is appropriated for a continuation of the Emergency Broadband Benefit (EBB.) The EBB helps low-income people pay for internet services by providing a financial discount from their provider. The bill reduces their monthly benefit from $50 per month to $30 per month. However, it replaces a temporary program with the more permanent “Affordability Connectivity Benefit” and requires internet service providers that receive federal money to accept the supplement for their customers. Currently, it is optional for providers.

The Affordability Connectivity Benefit is significant to our region and provides an opportunity for WNC to partner with the state in promoting the program. The National Digital Inclusion Alliance estimates that up to 3.2 million North Carolina residents will be eligible for the benefit. Currently, only 276,000 North Carolinians receive discounted internet prices via the Emergency Broadband Benefit Program. Assuming our region is 7% of the total state’s population, we may have over 200,000 people who may qualify for all or part of the subsidy. Expanding the number of people accessing high speed service is critical for WNC. A 2020 survey of students in WNC public schools found 13% of local students did not have internet service and 28% of the households did not subscribe to an internet service.

To help close the digital divide, the IIJA incorporates the “Digital Equity Act of 2021” (DEA). Within the DEA, $2.75 billion is allocated for two grant programs: State Digital Equity Capacity Grant Program and the Digital Equity Competitive Grant. The State Digital Equity Capacity Grant includes $60 million for states to complete their own digital equity plans. It then allocates $1.44 billion over the next five years for implementation of the state plan which is likely to include local inclusion plans. WNC is ahead of other parts of the state in creating digital inclusion plans. The NC Institute of Emerging Issues and the Dogwood Health Trust have been instrumental in financing local plans. The regional planning councils have pioneered in this effort.

The second aspect of great interest in the DEA is $1.25 billion for the Dept. of Commerce to distribute money to local governments, non-profit organizations, and “anchor institutions” to improve digital equity. The details of this grant program are not yet available. The grant will provide opportunities for anchor institutions such as universities and local governments to be creative in closing the digital divide.

Policy Areas of Importance

Currently, the FCC defines high speed broadband as 25 Megabits per second (Mbps) in download speed (coming from the internet to the computer) and 3 Mbps upload speed (computer to the internet.) In the new infrastructure bill, applications for funds from broadband companies must target deployment of broadband to achieve internet speeds of 100 Megabits per second (Mbps) download and 20 Mbps upload. The new speed preferences are significant in emphasizing fiber connectivity over older copper technology and some wireless delivery systems. It will also push the FCC to set 100/20 as the new national standard.

The infrastructure act allows cities and counties to use the new federal money to “fill in” geographical areas not being served. This is important for WNC due to our terrain. However, given state law, the funds will be of limited value for use by local governments as matching dollars for state programs such as the NC Growing Rural Economies with Access to Technology (GREAT) grants Since the funds are distributed through the state and not directly to counties, it is unclear how much freedom will be given to local units of government, particularly counties in the use of IIJA funds. The NTIA and the NC Broadband Infrastructure Office will provide more guidance over the next few months about how the federal money (passed through the state Broadband Infrastructure office) can be used by local governments. WNC will benefit significantly if the state allows flexibility in the use of federal funds.

Summary

The Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act will greatly assist WNC. As of this date (Dec. 7, 2021) there are many details yet to be established. There are also provisions in the IIJA that we haven’t reported here. There is no doubt that the act will help our residents be part of the high-speed digital age. It provides a wonderful challenge for local organizations to access these funds to make this future a reality in WNC.


Overview from the National Digital Inclusion Alliance

https://www.digitalinclusion.org/blog/2021/08/10/infrastructure-bill/

Funding Provisions of Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act

Broadband Grants for States, DC, Puerto Rico & Territories: $42.5 billion

● This is a new grant program the National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA) will manage. The deployment funds will be issued as block grants to states with rules defined by the NTIA.
● In addition to deployment, states can use funds from these grants for digital equity uses, including:
○ To deploy affordable networks in low-income, multi-family buildings
○ To promote broadband adoption
○ Deployment grant recipients (ISPs) must offer a ‘low-cost’ or affordable plan for consumers.

Broadband Benefit: $14.2 billion

● Extends and amends the Emergency Broadband Benefit Program, including changing the name to the “Affordable Connectivity Program,” paving the way for a permanent program
● All internet service plans are required to be eligible for the Affordable Connectivity Program
● The program benefit is reduced to $30/month
● Eligibility for the program is increased from 135% of the poverty line to 200% of the poverty line

Tribal Connectivity Program: $2 billion

● Extends the Tribal Connectivity Program created by Congress in the Consolidated Appropriations Act, 2021 (CAA)

Middle Mile Connectivity: $1 billion

● Creates a grant program at NTIA for expanding middle mile access, which will help connect unserved anchor institutions and make last-mile buildout to unserved households easier and cheaper.

Digital Equity Act: $2.75 billion (over 5 years)

● $60 million for state planning grants
● $1.44 billion for state implementation grants
● $1.25 billion ($250 million a year for 5 years) for the competitive grant program

Digital Discrimination

● The bill text outlines “digital discrimination” (a softened definition of digital redlining) and charges the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) with creating rules to enforce

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Broadband access Buncombe Digital Divide Emergency Broadband Benefit (EBB)

$50 Internet Discount

What is the Emergency Broadband Benefit (EBB)?

The EBB program presents a unique opportunity to bring adults online at a discounted cost.

The WNC Broadband Project team wants to ensure the utilization of this important program for adults of all ages.

Get Help Paying for Low-Cost, High-Speed Internet

The Emergency Broadband Benefit (EBB) is a government program to help households struggling to pay for internet service during the pandemic.

EBB provides a discount of up to $50 per month towards broadband service for eligible households.

North Carolina EBB Providers

Who are the NC EBB providers?

How Do I Qualify?

A household is eligible for EBB if one member of the household meets any of the following:

  • Qualifies for the Lifeline program, SNAP, or Medicaid
  • Receives benefits under the free and reduced-price school lunch program or the school breakfast program, including through the USDA Community Eligibility Provision, or did so in the 2019-2020 school year
  • Received a Federal Pell Grant during the current award year
  • Experienced a substantial loss of income since February 29, 2020 and the household had a total income in 2020 below $99,000 for single filers and $198,000 for joint filers
  • Meets the eligibility criteria for a participating providers’ existing low-income or COVID-19 program.

Note that the Emergency Broadband Benefit is limited to one monthly service discount and one device discount per household.

For more information, visit the Federal Communications Commission’s (FCC) website.

Application Process

Eligible households can enroll directly through participating broadband providers or with the Universal Service Administrative Company (USAC).

USAC is the company that administers the FCC’s Lifeline Program. People who are not currently in Lifeline must apply for the EBB Program through the National Lifeline Verifier, which is currently required to enroll in the FCC’s Lifeline benefit program.

Participants of the FCC’s Lifeline program do not need to apply for the EBB Program and must simply opt-in to a plan provided by a participating North Carolina internet service provider.

Digital Literacy Help

In Western North Carolina, the Digital Literacy Network is available to help the 60+ year-old Buncombe County resident by:

More About the EBB from OATS, the Older Adults Technology Services.

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Broadband funding Emergency Broadband Benefit (EBB) FCC NC BIO Older adults

Emergency Broadband Benefit (EBB)

Help spread the this information of funding for the broadband benefit for qualified individuals.

$50 per month for internet service is available

How can you spread information about EBB?

The FCC provides a toolkit to help you marketing with:

  • Offline Marketing
  • Social Media Postings
  • Pairing with other digital inclusion efforts in WNC
  • Public access Wi-Fi locations
  • Device lending locations

A Quick Introduction to EBB

AARP, the Older Adults Technology Services (OATS), and Aging Connected have this short YouTube video on ‘A Quick Introduction to EBB.’

Digital Literacy Network

The Digital Literacy Network of Buncombe County was initiated to help provide technology support for the 60+ year-old.

Join the community efforts today by:

Other Resources

WNC Broadband Blogs Posts on the EBB

How to apply for the Emergency Broadband Benefit

Harnessing the Power of Technology to Change the Way We Age | OATS. (2021, May 20). OATS. https://oats.org/

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Broadband access Broadband in WNC Education Emergency Broadband Benefit (EBB)

A Broadband Benefit is Available

Emergency Broadband Benefit (EBB)

The Emergency Broadband Benefit is a temporary FCC program to help households struggling to afford internet service during the pandemic. The FCC is mobilizing people and organizations to help raise awareness about the Emergency Broadband Benefit. The materials below are available for public use. You can download and customize the materials to meet your needs, including by adding your logo to co-brand.

Eligible households can enroll through an approved provider or by visiting sort by GetEmergencyBroadband.org.

To learn more about the program or to become a partner visit www.fcc.gov/broadbandbenefit.

If you have questions about any of the materials below please contact broadbandbenefit@fcc.gov.

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Affordability Broadband in WNC Emergency Broadband Benefit (EBB)

EBB

Emergency Broadband Benefit

During the pandemic, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) is helping households struggling to pay for internet with the Emergency Broadband Benefit (EBB) program.

The FCC is also looking to mobilize organizations to help share important consumer information about the Emergency Broadband Benefit that will provide a discount of up to $50 per month towards broadband service for eligible households and up to $75 per month for households on Tribal lands.

Additionally, eligible households can also receive a one-time discount of up to $100 to purchase a laptop, desktop computer, or tablet from participating providers if they contribute $10-$50 toward the purchase price.

Learn More

Emergency Broadband Benefit. (2021, February 11). Federal Communications Commission.

https://www.fcc.gov/broadbandbenefit


‌The Western North Carolina Broadband Project is advocating for all households in WNC to get high speed internet.

Please help the FCC and the WNCBP mobilize organizations to support sharing consumer information about the Emergency Broadband Benefit.