Critics hope CARES Act broadband funds go toward the truly unserved
By Johnny Kampis, Taxpayers’ Protection Alliance
The broadband taxpayer money doled out by the CARES Act is intended for unserved, rather than underserved areas. But, plans created by governments that will dole out the money and those providers who will receive them, raise concerns that funds will truly go to those who need them the most. The difference between unserved and underserved is significant because underserved is subjective while unserved is absolute. For example, “underserved” could imply a town that currently has competitors while “unserved” means no service.
The Cornhusker State will create the Nebraska Remote Access Broadband Grant with $40 million in the stimulus funds so small communities can partner with providers to create broadband access. But the program requires a town population of at least 1,000 to participate, potentially leaving out the smallest towns that could be greatest in need.
A consortium of Mississippi power cooperatives hope to get $150 million in state and federal funds to expand broadband to rural residents, but the group has touted that it will serve both unserved and underserved areas rather than just unserved regions.
States are working under a short timetable. Congress mandated that the funds be distributed by the end of the year so that people affected by the pandemic can be serviced with broadband quickly.
The Associated Press reported that the Vermont Legislature initially wanted to spend $100 million for broadband, but cut the figure to $20 million because officials didn’t believe they could spend the higher amount before the deadline.
“This is triage, this is not like what we are looking for, a massive, wide solution,” said Jeremy Hansen, chairman of the governing board for CV Fiber, an organization covering 20 central Vermont towns to help expand broadband, told AP. “We may be setting up cases where we are going to serve one house, not ideal, but that may be the case.”
San Antonio, Texas is trying to rush through the creation of a municipal wireless network, using $27 million of CARES Act funds as the down payment on the project intended to service about 20,000 low-income students. That network will only allow students to access their local school’s internet, which filters much of the web.
Tom Giovanetti, president of the Institute for Policy Innovation, said that other cities are using such funding for public-private partnerships to provide subsidies for broadband access. He notes that San Antonio will have millions of additional costs in future years after spending the round of CARES funds in 2020.
“Chicago, for example, is using $50 million in mostly philanthropic funds to provide 100,000 low-income students with free broadband connections for up to four years via a partnership with its major cable providers,” he wrote in the San Antonio Express News. “Since Chicago is leveraging existing broadband networks and not having to build its own, its funding will go much further than in San Antonio, where most of the money will disappear into sunk costs.”
In the Palmetto State, the South Carolina Broadband Infrastructure Program plans to use CARES Act funding across the state, determining need by broadband mapping. The average cost to service a home or business is nearly $900.
But the efficacy provided by such maps has long been a concern. Brent Skorup, senior research fellow at the Mercatus Center at George Mason University, told the Taxpayers Protection Alliance (TPA) that accurate information has been an issue in determining who really doesn’t have high-speed internet, and the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) is now developing a plan to improve the situation.
“This is a big problem with U.S. broadband policy,” Skorup said. “We don’t have great data and maps about which areas are truly unserved.”
In March, President Trump signed into law the Broadband Deployment Accuracy and Technological Availability Act, which tasks the FCC with improving its broadband data collection. That includes expanding the number of providers who provide data and crowdsourcing the information from the public. Now, Congress needs to fund the broadband maps.
Skorup notes that the FCC under the Trump Administration has made it clear it won’t let the lack of accurate maps get in the way of providing funds to expand broadband.
“It’s a tradeoff between accuracy and getting assistance to those unserved rural areas,” he said.
Johnny Kampis is a senior fellow and investigative reporter for the Taxpayers Protection Alliance.