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Gina Raimondo said roughly $50 billion her department is overseeing will go first to communities without service, or where speeds are slowest. She also promised flexibility for states.
U.S. Secretary of Commerce Gina Raimondo assured senators on Tuesday that her department will first send broadband dollars to areas where service is poor or nonexistent, before spending in places with better connections.
Raimondo, whose department is in charge of distributing around $50 billion in broadband funding in the bipartisan Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act, also pledged at a Senate appropriations subcommittee hearing to give states “the greatest flexibility” over how they choose to spend the money.
Acknowledging states have different needs, Raimondo, the former governor of Rhode Island, said, “if I deliver no other message today, it’s that we do not intend to have a one-size-fits-all approach.”
Republican senators, like Susan Collins of Maine, had been concerned that the administration would use infrastructure funds to bring faster service to places that are already connected, instead of to rural areas where there is no service or where users endure especially slow internet speeds.
These fears were highlighted when Collins and 10 other Republican senators wrote U.S. Department of Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen last week, protesting how the department had loosened broadband spending rules for the American Rescue Plan Act’s $350 billion direct aid program for states and localities.
Treasury broadened the areas eligible for the money, relaxing a more restrictive standard outlined in an earlier draft of the rules for the program. Broadband advocates had pressed for the change like this. But the GOP senators called the language in the final rule “a vague and subjective standard” that would lead to overbuilding.
Raimondo, though, assured senators that her goal is to make sure “every single household, small business, farm and student in America has access to broadband.” She added: “Shame on us and me if there is anyone who is still unserved after the money is spent.”
The Commerce Department is planning to issue a notice that the funds are available in mid-May, Raimondo said. States that respond that they plan to apply for funding will be given $5 million grants to help come up with plans for spending the money. The states will be subject to strong requirements to consult with stakeholders, including broadband companies and cities in devising the plans, Raimondo said.
Commerce also plans to wait to issue the funding until the Federal Communications Commission develops updated maps showing levels of broadband service across the country, Raimondo said. The department intends to use the maps to guide how it distributes the largest portion of the infrastructure dollars for broadband—the $42.25 billion Broadband Equity, Access and Deployment program.
Under the program, each state, and the District of Columbia and Puerto Rico, will receive at least $100 million. American Samoa, Guam, the Northern Marianas Islands and the U.S. Virgin Islands will each receive at least $25 million. The remainder of the funds will be allocated based on the number of locations in the states without broadband service.
Raimondo said that FCC Chairwoman Jessica Rosenworcel has said the maps will be done this summer.
“We can’t let the money flow until we have the maps,” the commerce secretary added.
Sen. Jeanne Shaheen, a New Hampshire Democrat and chairwoman of the subcommittee that has jurisdiction over the Commerce Department, expressed concerns about the maps the FCC is working on, noting that previous versions have not accurately shown areas with subpar service.
Raimondo said she shared the concerns, and that she envisioned a process where states could challenge the maps. She noted it is an example of the “excruciating details that we’re in the middle of figuring out.”
Get Ready for the Funds
In the meantime, Raimondo said states should be getting ready for the funding by consulting stakeholders, bolstering broadband agencies and reviewing permitting policies with an eye towards installing broadband lines at the same time as other infrastructure, like water pipes.and
Some states may be better positioned than others to tap the funds. Sen. Jerry Moran, a Kansas Republican, said his state’s broadband agency has two employees.
Raimondo also stressed that her department will enforce a provision in the infrastructure bill requiring companies, nonprofits and cities that get broadband funds to offer customers a low-cost service option.
“Affordability is just as important as access. What good is it to have broadband in your neighborhood if you can’t afford it?” she said.“We’re going to define 'low-cost’ to be really low cost.”
Kery Murakami is a senior reporter for Route Fifty based in Washington, D.C.