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State Flexibility Key to Using ARPA Support for Broadband to the Unserved

Earlier in January, the Treasury Department unveiled its final rule on permitted use of American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) funding and support. This funding is designed to rescue Americans from the ravages wrought by COVID-19, helping to get us back on our feet, and to prevent and prepare us for the future.

With our economy shut down during the peak of the pandemic, broadband represented a lifeline. It allowed Americans to manage their healthcare needs, work, school, find entertainment, and communicate with family, friends and the outside world. Consequently, ARPA wisely funds the fortification of our internet-based communications infrastructure by providing direct support to the states, bridging lingering gaps in broadband coverage.

Among other things, the final rule expands eligible areas for additional broadband infrastructure investment, works to ensure uptake for marginalized individuals and communities through affordability measures, and encourages recipients to prioritize projects that are designed to provide service to locations not currently receiving at least 100 Mbps of download speed and 20 Mbps of upload speed.

Claude Aiken

Guest blog author Claude Aiken is president and CEO of the Wireless Internet Service Providers Association (WISPA) (Image credit: WISPA)

We commend the Department of Treasury for striving for these laudable goals.  WISPA and our community-based members have long-advocated for the need to close the so-called digital divide. They provide evolutionary, high-speed connectivity to more than 7 million Americans in the toughest, least-served reaches of America.  Notwithstanding the challenges inherent in such service, our members have year-over-year grown access in the digital divide using an array of broadband technologies and business models. This work continues and expands daily.

Still, millions of Americans lack affordable broadband solutions, which as the pandemic has revealed, represents an intolerable public safety crisis. To this end, we greatly appreciate the focus within the final rule on working toward getting all Americans online. And, our members look forward to partnering with the states and local governments as they use ARPA funds to reach the unserved with the broadband lifeline they need and deserve. The final rule establishes a flexible, open approach to bringing broadband where it is not.

For example, the final rule provides flexibility for states and local governments to choose a broad range of solutions to reliably meet technical speed and other baseline needs in the rule. The final rule also makes it abundantly clear that, even where practicability is not at issue, its preference on such issues as transmission technology, business models to build out that technology, and other aspects within the rule are essentially suggestions, not mandates. Encouragement, not decrees. In short, states and local governments have discretion to fund the right tool for the right broadband deployment job.

This is tremendously prescient. We believe that many different solutions coming to the table remain the best way to bridge the digital divide and keep all Americans safe. Our members’ success in working in that space depends on such flexibility.  And that approach has borne out elsewhere throughout history in our economy:  Where inclusive systems promote the development and deployment of more solutions, better results always prevail.

States and localities, nonetheless, have a fine line to walk. Ignoring existing community-based providers who are serving broadband to rural America could result in lost rural jobs, and shuttered small businesses. Entrepreneurs who invested in their communities could see their livelihoods destroyed.

But an inclusive approach to broadband deployment would smartly seek to enlist the help of those on the ground, such as WISPA’s community-based providers, many of whom employ a hybrid approach of fiber and fixed wireless technologies in their networks. We encourage recipients of these grants to keep fidelity to this accommodating approach because, simply, it works – quickly, cost-effectively, and in a manner which promotes “future-proof” growth that serves vital communities in need.

More choices. Access anywhere. Better lives.

ARPA can realize that if it remains flexible and inclusive, as the final rule clearly contemplates. ■

Claude Aiken is president and CEO of the Wireless Internet Service Providers Association (WISPA), representing fixed wireless internet service providers (WISPs) and the evolving industry that supports fixed broadband connectivity.