Woman on tablet at home. Windstream RDOF

The American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) adopted earlier this year includes $350 billion in Coronavirus State and Local Fiscal Recovery funding that will go to state and local governments and can be used for broadband and other projects.

The Treasury Department released what it’s calling “interim final rules” for that program last month and, as Pew Charitable Trusts explains in a new blog post, the rules call for funding recipients to deploy service with symmetrical speeds of at least 100 Mbps “unless that speed is impractical because of topography, geography or cost.”

That’s the most aggressive broadband speed target we’ve seen yet from a federal agency, noted blog post author Kathryn de Wit, project director of the broadband access initiative at Pew Charitable Trusts, in an interview with Telecompetitor.

The interim rules call for funding to go to areas lacking “reliable” service at speeds of at least 25 Mbps downstream and 3 Mbps upstream – and the use of the word “reliable” is also atypical. The word appears to suggest that states and localities might be able to direct ARPA state and local funding to areas that have 25/3 Mbps fixed wireless or DSL service, de Wit.

“What Treasury is saying is maybe policy is technology-neutral, but we’re acknowledging that not all technologies perform equally,” she said.

She notes, though, that if adopted, wording such as “reliable” could make it challenging for states to implement programs funded through the ARPA state and local program. The reason is that the states would have to determine how to define “reliable.”

ARPA State Broadband Funding

The interim rules for the ARPA state and local fund reflect some other shifts in traditional broadband policy as well, de Wit noted.

For example, Treasury recommends prioritization of projects that are “owned, operated by or affiliated with non-profits and co-operatives.”

According to de Wit, this doesn’t necessarily mean favoring municipal networks but rather “community-based solutions.” She argued that the most successful projects are those in which “community and local-government and other local stakeholders, including local providers, are actively involved in shaping the planning” for broadband networks.

These entities, she said, are “vested in the local communities.”

Another important aspect of the interim rules is that they don’t call for funding to be distributed by census block, but instead focus on the word “communities.” That’s an important distinction, considering all the criticism that has been raised about FCC broadband availability data, which considers an entire census block to have service available, even if only a single location can get service.

According to de Wit’s blog post, this shift would allow states and localities – many of which have collected their own broadband availability data —to define targeted service areas in their own way.

De Wit declined to predict whether the broadband policy shifts evidenced in the ARPA interim state and local funding rules signal a broader shift that might impact other broadband programs. But she said she was “feeling positive about the fact that we’re seeing the federal government outline a clear role for state and local government and ensuring Americans have access to affordable internet.”

She said state and local stakeholders “have a better understanding of what’s needed than federal policy makers” and called the ARPA state and local program “an important step forward in acknowledging that [broadband] is a service that is essential to American life.”

She cautioned, though, that it will be important for all three levels of government to work together to ensure accountability and oversight of broadband funding programs.

Still on Tap

Plans for the ARPA state and local fund call for the $350 billion to be distributed to states and localities based on a complicated formula, de Wit explained.

Stakeholders have until mid-July to comment on the interim rules. But according to de Wit, the government is not waiting for the rules to be finalized before releasing the first tranche of funding in the ARPA state and local program. That release is currently in process, she said.

The ARPA also included $10 billion specifically for broadband through the Capital Projects Fund, de Wit noted. Every state will get at least $100 million, with the remainder divvied up based on another complex formula.

The ARPA was signed into law in March and also includes some broadband funding to be awarded at the federal level.

Additional information about the ARPA state and local program can be found on this U.S. Treasury web page.

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