What could you do with $100 million? What could you do with $100 million in every state, plus more for poor or rural states, for broadband infrastructure and programs to reach every child trying to join Zoom calls with their teacher, to connect every harried parent trying to do to their job virtually while monitoring the home schooling in the kitchen, to bring a doctor to every senior or medically vulnerable person afraid to leave their house for fear of contracting COVID-19?
That was the joyful, wonderful question those of us in the broadband world were asking ourselves for about 48 hours last week. After months of speculation about infrastructure money in the next stimulus bill, and weeks of rumor about a really big tranche of money for states to spend bringing high-speed broadband to every corner of every community, we saw it: a Wednesday night draft online of the Emergency Coronavirus Relief Act of 2020, the stimulus bill being debated in Congress, that contained $6.25 billion to bridge the Digital Divide and enable remote learning, telework, telehealth, and other essential activities during the Pandemic. Every state and U.S. Tribal Governments would receive an initial $100 million in block grants to use with wide discretion for connecting its citizens. There would be more to come, allocated based on population, number of rural consumers, and number of individuals living in poverty.
There was an immediate buzz in state houses and legislatures, among builders and providers of broadband like Tilson, between advocates and champions for digital equity and education: think what a difference that money could make! It would have to be spent quickly under the terms of the bill, so we dreamed and dreamed big. Imagined broadband to every farmhouse. Imagined every low-income student having not just a school-issued laptop, but enough connectivity in their home so that all the kids could Zoom into their virtual classrooms at the same time. Imagine no more teachers, students, workers sitting in fast food parking lots trying to catch a wi-fi signal.
In Connecticut, $100 million would go a long, long way to connecting every citizen and business to reliable, affordable high-speed broadband. There is a governor, a legislature, and a state broadband office poised to create innovative new programs.
There are nonprofits like Northwest Connect, founded by former state representative Roberta Willis, that could actualize their projects to connect “the Quiet Corners.” There are elected officials and public servants like Comptroller Kevin Lembo, Hartford Mayor Luke Bronin, and Office of Early Childhood Commissioner (and former Senator) Beth Bye who all have been pressing for universal broadband access for years. There are philanthropies like the Dalio Foundation that have been actively searching for ways to close the Digital Divide in education. There are community warriors like Janice Flemming-Butler from the Voices of Women of Color.
With a small state like Connecticut, $100 million dollars with more on the way would be transformative. Giant steps forward in addressing the Digital Divide and the Homework Gap. An economic shot in the arm to the broadband dead zones in our rural areas. A services and research boon to our hospitals and high-tech precision medicine industry. A sigh of relief for those of us working online with spotty or uneven internet access.
This giddiness and excitement were echoed in conversations all over the country. Just imagine…
It was not to last. On Friday evening, the broadband funding for state block grants was cut from the draft stimulus bill. It was, at least for me and I’m sure for others, a gut punch. Perhaps I should have known better than to get my hopes up (again).
To be sure, there are substantial funds – billions of dollars – in the stimulus bill devoted to broadband, including emergency assistance for low-income families, support for tribal broadband projects, money to improve broadband mapping, and funds for rural broadband (details TBD, but Connecticut has no areas that qualify as “rural” under the federal definitions). All important priorities.
However, the state block grants, the millions to each state to spend on its identified broadband needs, the money that would have changed the broadband landscape in Connecticut forever, is gone.
There are indications that there will be other opportunities in future stimulus bills, and we will continue to advocate for them. As a colleague wisely wrote to me Friday night, tomorrow is another day, we soldier on!
And we will. Hopefully more to come. But for a couple days last week, we were already there. For one brief shining moment, we were all connected.
Elin Swanson Katz is the Managing Director of Utilities and Associate General Counsel at Tilson. She was the Connecticut Consumer Advocate from 2011-2019.