Internet funding rule could favor rural areas over cities
Cities and urban counties across the U.S. are raising concerns that a recent rule from President Joe Biden’s administration could preclude them from tapping into $350 billion of coronavirus relief aid to expand high-speed internet connections.
Biden has set a goal of delivering fast, affordable internet to every American household. The massive American Rescue Plan took a step toward that by including broadband infrastructure among the primary uses for pandemic aid flowing to each city, county and state.
But an interim rule published by the U.S. Treasury Department has narrowed the broadband eligibility. It focuses on areas that lack reliable broadband, which connects devices to the internet through a cable or data line, at download speeds of at least 25 megabits per second and upload speeds of at least 3 Mbps.
That threshold ensures funding for remote, rural areas that have slow or no internet service, and it matches the definition of broadband set by the Federal Communications Commission in 2015. But cities contend the eligibility mark overlooks the realities of today’s internet needs.
Though most cities already have broadband available, the speed still might not be fast enough to handle multiple people in a home trying to work, study and stream entertainment simultaneously — a common scenario during the coronavirus pandemic. The price also can be more than lower-income residents can afford.
“They’re basically prioritizing those rural areas over the underserved urban areas where there is more population,” said Detta Kissel, a retired Treasury Department attorney who helped write agency rules and now advocates for better internet service in the Washington, D.C., suburb of Arlington, Virginia.
Several cities, including Washington, Los Angeles, Milwaukee and San Antonio, have submitted public comments to the Treasury Department urging it to loosen the eligibility standard for spending pandemic relief money on broadband. Some want the Treasury to define underserved areas as anything less than download and upload speeds of 100 Mbps.
That would increase the number of locations eligible for funding from about 11 million to 82 million households and businesses nationwide, according to a study conducted for America’s Communications Association, which represents small and mediumsized internet providers.