Cities have been given direct funding through the Coronavirus State and Local Recovery Funds as part of the American Rescue Plan Act. This is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for cities to tackle local broadband issues. This funding is intended to address and fix issues related to the pandemic, and those issues clearly include fixing issues where inadequate broadband failed the public during the pandemic.
There are those hoping that even more such funding might be coming from the $10 billion Coronavirus Capital Projects Fund to help cities, but the rules for this funding will require that states satisfy rural broadband issues first before considering other uses. That may still mean some money for cities in some states – but most of this money will likely go to fix rural broadband.
I’ve been hearing from cities across the country that are looking for ways to use the grant funding. I’ve heard some interesting ideas.
Expanded Broadband For Students. Almost every community in the country had problems connecting students to schools during the pandemic. This was a disaster in many communities when many students didn’t have computers or home broadband. Cities are talking about using the money to be better ready for future problems. That means more community WiFi hotspots. Some communities are using CBRS or other spectrum to create wireless links to student homes.
Improved Broadband for Low-Income Neighborhoods. Along the same lines as the item above, many communities are considering building fiber to serve public housing or to neighborhoods that can’t afford broadband. Cities typically don’t want to be an ISP, so this idea often involves an ISP operating partner. The ultimate goal of these initiatives is to bring affordable broadband.
Better Broadband for Business Districts. Business districts took a huge hit from the pandemic, and there are many communities reporting that 25% or more of local businesses went under during the pandemic. Communities are considering using fast and affordable broadband as an incentive for economic development to lure businesses to vacant storefronts.
Fiber for Industrial Parks. This is more of a traditional economic development idea, but the pandemic forced a lot of businesses to fail. Bringing fiber to industrial parks that don’t have fiber is a way to help keep existing businesses in operation and to create an opportunity to take advantage of any national effort to reclaim domestic manufacturing.
Innovation Zones. One of the more interesting ideas is to create an innovation zone. This can mean many things. Perhaps this means creating a business incubator space to nurture start-up businesses. It might mean providing co-working space to those who work from home but need access to conference rooms and meeting spaces. It might mean bringing high-speed broadband, green power, and new technologies to bear to help rejuvenate a run-down neighborhood.
Government Savings. Cities that are undertaking the above initiatives are also looking to use any fiber construction to connect local government locations onto a private network to reduce broadband bills. This is particularly needed as cable companies are refusing to offer I-nets when renewing cable franchises. Of particular interest is building fiber to libraries that did not have enough broadband to satisfy the public’s needs during the pandemic. Building fiber to connect anchor institutions reduces the long-term cost of government.