William Sederburg, Chair of the WNC Broadband Project
Kennedy Young, University of North Carolina 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 is allotted 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 a lack of fiber and a trained workforce. WNC faces an additional challenge 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 University of North Carolina Asheville’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” landscape filled with poor or missing service pockets. With funds from the Dogwood Trust, the Land of Sky Regional Council, and the Southwest Commission 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 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 entire 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 that 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 digital equity plans. Further, it allocates $1.44 billion over the next five years to implement the state equity plan; this 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 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 the broadband deployment to achieve internet speeds of 100 Megabits per second (Mbps) download and 20 Mbps upload. The new speed preferences are significant because they emphasize 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 ability is important for WNC due to missing connectivity caused, in part, by our terrain. Currently, though, it is unclear how much freedom will be given to local units of government–particularly counties– in the use of IIJA funds since Matching dollars for state programs (such as the NC Growing Rural Economies with Access to Technology (GREAT) grants) are distributed through the state and not directly to counties. The NTIA and the NC Broadband Infrastructure Office will provide more guidance over the next few months about how local governments can use the federal money (passed through the state Broadband Infrastructure office). WNC will benefit significantly if the state allows flexibility in the use of federal funds.
The Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act will significantly assist WNC. It has the potential to connect WNC in ways that previously would not have been possible due to the cost and geographical burdens presented by our mountain terrain. As of this date (Dec. 7, 2021), many details are yet to be established. Moreover, it is important to note that there are also provisions in the IIJA that we have not reported here. The Act, though, will undoubtedly help our residents be part of the high-speed digital age. The provisions set forth by the IIJA will provide an excellent challenge for local organizations to access funds to make an accessible digital future a reality for all Western North Carolina residents.
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
● The bill text outlines “digital discrimination” (a softened definition of digital redlining) and charges the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) with creating rules to enforce
*Overview from the National Digital Inclusion Alliance (https://www.digitalinclusion.org/blog/2021/08/10/infrastructure-bill/)