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Regulation - What is it Good For?

Earmarks – a New Source of Broadband Funding?

The current Congress stuck almost 5,000 earmarks costing almost $9 billion into the $1.5 trillion budget that was recently signed by President Biden. An earmark is when each member of Congress gets to designate funds directly to pet projects.

Earmarks have an ugly history. Earmarks were used in last year’s budget after an absence of over a decade. In the past, earmarks have often been labeled as pork-barrel spending, and there are many cases in the past when earmarked spending went unfairly to friends and backers of politicians.

But on the plus side, having earmarks again seems to have sped up the otherwise contentious budgetary process since each member of Congress has a vested interest in getting a budget passed.

There is no reason that earmark spending can’t be used for broadband infrastructure, and it’s likely that there were broadband construction projects buried inside of the 4,962 projects that were just funded this way. The recent earmark awards averaged a little over $1.8 million each, but there were some earmarks over $100 million. Each member of Congress awarded an average of $16.8 million in earmarks.

However, the dollars of earmarks allowed to any given member of Congress is not preset. The amounts are negotiated. It was the trading of political favors to gain earmark allocations that gave the process a bad name in the past.

The idea of getting an earmark for broadband is intriguing because I’m not sure anybody knows what rules would apply. If a member of Congress gives an earmark to build fiber in a specific part of a city, I don’t think it would matter what broadband speeds are already there. It probably doesn’t matter if other grants are already promised in the same geographic area. For example, I can imagine earmarks being used to overbuild an area with unawarded RDOF funding.

If earmarks are here to stay, then communities need to add this As a tool for funding broadband. In much of rural America, the lack of broadband is the number one local issue. A member of Congress might be able to provide the money to build broadband in a whole county – and be a local hero for doing so.

If you are going to pursue earmarks, you have to treat it the same as going after the grant. You must do your homework first and have a shovel-ready project that will come in on budget. That means doing the engineering and market research so that you know the cost of construction. You must be ready to jump on a project and build quickly if earmark spending comes with a deadline for spending the funding.

You’ll have a lot of questions about earmark spending that you’ll have a hard time getting answered. For example, I’m pretty sure that a federal project funded by an earmark would still be subject to the Buy American laws. You’ll want to understand upfront if an earmark-funded project would be subject to any other rules such as needing an environmental review or having to pay prevailing wages.

In the end, an earmark is a grant that bypasses the competitive grant process. If your community has a good enough broadband story to tell and a local member of Congress as an ally, then this idea is worth considering.

2 replies on “Earmarks – a New Source of Broadband Funding?”

I much appreciate your voice in the fight for quality internet to the home. I started a community group, CUT-Citizens Underserved in Technology, a little over 5 years ago advocating for quality internet to our homes as our only options were Viasat and HughesNet (both HORRIBLE and should never be the ONLY option to a home) while living only 2.5 miles from some of the best fiber in the area. I have spoken to many local, state and federal legislators (or their lawyers and aides because I am a nobody) and quickly learned how ignorant they were regarding ‘what’ type of internet is needed in the home and how ‘corrupt’ the funding structure is when providing dollars to ‘quasi’ private sector telecoms because they rarely supply the ‘true’ underserved and if they do, it is a substandard ‘wireless’ product. Our community is finally slated to receive symmetrical 1 gig fiber for less than $100/month (we were paying $220+ with Viasat) from our local municipal, LCUB, who is ‘finally’ entering the fiber internet market and they have prioritized our area to receive in their first year of buildout (it should be fall 2022). Another local municipal, KUB, is also beginning buildout and is bigger than our municipal which allows them to service 450,000 customers. I really feel the underserved problem has been temporarily solved by Musk’s Starlink program (we ‘finally’ got it in March after being on a wait list for over a year and will keep until fiber is available) because it is far superior to other home ‘wireless’ products in rural areas and our government’s focus should be to ONLY fund municipal internet because they are the ‘only’ ISP that offers the same ‘wired’ internet to ‘all’ their customers and internet to the home is an ‘essential’ utility necessary for the health, welfare and safety of individuals in today’s world. The 1936 Rural Electrification Act is credited with ‘saving’ rural America by providing ‘wired’, NOT ‘wireless like batteries or candles, electricity to ALL homes and our government needs to understand homes need ‘wired’ fiber to function which would actually ‘save’ them money because they have wasted ‘billions’ on ‘substandard wireless’ products that do not work or quickly become obsolete. I hope you feel the same way and will advocate in this direction so the ‘digital divide’ can become a part of our history and ‘quasi private sector telecoms’ will stop wasting taxpayer dollars devoted to the underserved on ‘new’ development projects, advertising, CEO salaries, substandard ‘wireless’ products, etc… I have many stories in my journey and believe Starlink is a temporary ‘fix’ (his FCC approval to use Starlink on all ‘earth movers’ gives me concern as a long term home internet supplier) while municipals build out fiber in their communities and receive any taxpayer dollars awarded for the digital divide – hopefully ignorance of this situation will cease soon.
Jennifer Morris
CUT founder/member
Public Educator

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