The proposition of pursuing funding for broadband can seem unwise when a short timeline is involved. Here are lessons learned from counties that had to spend CARES dollars in the face of a fast construction deadline.
In 2020, states directed millions of Coronavirus, Aid, Relief and Economic Security (CARES) Act funds toward broadband infrastructure. While any money for high-speed Internet is a good thing, these dollars initially came with an aggressive December 2020 deadline, meaning that some local stakeholders were better positioned than others to take on the timeline burden.
Jessica Fowler is the chief client officer for Lit Communities, a company that helps local areas plan for and deploy fiber networks. She said the CARES legislation was well intentioned, but she felt it wasn’t written with a firm understanding of what it takes to complete a connectivity project. In order to use the money for broadband, one had to show a connection to a premise or demand point in a matter of months.
“I was really blown away by how much was required of these communities,” Fowler said.
Silas Chamberlin, vice president of economic and community development for the York County Economic Alliance, said multiple counties in Pennsylvania were interested in the prospect of getting CARES dollars to support broadband.
Nonetheless, many county leaders in Pennsylvania didn’t feel comfortable pursuing the money. Some weren’t sure whether their broadband challenges could be interpreted as COVID-related issues, as local connectivity problems existed well before the pandemic struck. Clarity on such questions could seem unattainable, as Chamberlin pointed out that there wasn’t “a lot of great guidance” from the U.S. Department of the Treasury or state offices.
“[W]hen you really started digging into the requirements and the timeline and everything, I think it made a lot of communities gun-shy about taking it on … I think you saw very local interpretations of what you could and couldn’t do,” Chamberlin said.
Because of these factors, communities that had strong organization around broadband were more able to go after CARES money, Fowler said. The lesson in this is clear: future funding opportunities, especially when it comes to emergency dollars, may depend on the farsightedness of a local area.
“The most important thing you can do is make sure your internal house is in order,” Fowler advised. “Make sure you understand that the money will have to be very carefully accounted for. Understand that you will need support from your leadership all the way down to your planning departments … you need people working together.”
Craig Settles, broadband industry analyst, said relationships with dependable vendors is a variable that can determine whether a community is ready to go after money with a short timeline attached to it. Prior data collection can also play a significant role.
“Those cities, those municipalities, counties, states even, that have gone beyond the call as far as data that documents their need is concerned, those folks will be in a better position to take advantage of new money that’s going to be available,” Settles observed.
Government Technology talked to two counties, York County in Pennsylvania and Botetourt County in Virginia, about how they were able to successfully utilize CARES money for broadband projects. Their stories follow.
How are we going to rebound economically? This question drove the proceedings of a York County recovery task force in the wake of COVID-19, said Julie Wheeler, president of the York County Board of Commissioners. Like the county’s comprehensive plan and economic action plan, the task force’s report concluded the digital divide within the county needed to be fixed.
“It’s not about just surfing the net anymore,” Wheeler said. “As we look at the things COVID has done, more and more people are rethinking how they work. We want to be a community that attracts businesses and people who want to live here.”
So when the county of roughly 450,000 people received $40.5 million in CARES funds, some of the money was set aside for broadband. With the help of Lit Communities, the county took the first step of identifying gaps in connectivity through a community assessment.
From there, the county faced the challenge of spending the rest of the money by the deadline. Three pilot projects were presented by Lit Communities. The most promising idea was building a 16-mile fiber backbone through a county-owned rail trail, as other concepts involved time-consuming activities like crossing private property.
“Fortunately for us, 20 years ago, when we were building our county’s rail trail, somebody had the foresight to bury two conduits underneath the rail trail,” Chamberlin said.
One of the conduits was unused. The big question was whether it was in good enough shape to lay fiber. Turns out it was in fine condition, and so the fiber-laying process began with Katapult, a company that had existing ties with the county.
Although sitting on top of a publicly owned conduit might seem like a miracle of sorts, the project had its fair share of doubters, Wheeler said. The doubts took many forms: “The project’s too big.” “It’s going to cost too much money.” “You don’t have enough CARES money to get it done.” “You’re never going to get people to work together.”
Wheeler’s response to such naysaying was to identify the roadblocks, whether it involved a permit or the weather or something else, and move through them.
“As leaders, we need to gently nudge people,” Wheeler said. “We need to push. We need to encourage. We need to motivate. We need to be able to have a shared vision.”
Chamberlin said the project, which was completed in time, could have been an uphill battle if not for leaders like Wheeler who championed the work, facilitated local approvals and convened meetings with all the relevant partners.
The county is in a good spot to take its next steps toward broader connectivity. Experts are now considering grant opportunities and where middle-mile fiber needs to be built out first based on community need. Although the county will own the backbone and middle-mile components of the network, both Wheeler and Chamberlin believe the last-mile solutions could involve public-private partnerships. They also believe having fiber will result in economic growth.
“It used to be that the conversation [with site selectors] would be around incentives and the average wages and how many square feet of space is available, and those things are still relevant, but increasingly broadband and the capacity for high-speed fiber is something we hear from site selectors all the time,” Chamberlin said.
Sitting in a mountainous section of Virginia, Botetourt County contains pockets of high-speed Internet thanks to previous grants. But many residents in the area, which has a population of about 33,000, either need better connectivity or lack broadband altogether. Frank Smith, president and CEO of the Roanoke Valley Broadband Authority (RVBA), said this status quo has unfortunate consequences for citizens.
“Regardless of where you’re living … there’s an assumption or a presupposition that you have to access Internet services,” Smith explained. “But the problem is if you don’t have access, then it means the digital divide is not just dividing you … it’s whacking you in the head and preventing you from getting services that you should have.”
Botetourt County is part of RVBA, a regional group that aims to increase broadband access for both citizens and businesses with its open access, middle-mile network. Through the leadership of RVBA and County Administrator Gary Larrowe, Botetourt was able to use CARES funds to create an 11-mile fiber backbone that will be used to facilitate fiber-to-the-home for various constituents.
Smith, who has three decades of experience with telecommunications, said he wouldn’t have accepted the accelerated timeline that comes with the CARES dollars if it weren’t for the strong team of Larrowe, the general contractor and Lit Communities.
“It was crazy, but we got it done, and we didn’t sacrifice quality,” Smith said.
Smith has talked to other communities, like Fort Collins, Colo., with municipal broadband projects to get insight into what works. Through these discussions, he has found a common theme: make sure you have the right people, and make sure efforts don’t just amount to a community exercise. Sometimes this means working with partners that you might be tempted to view as enemies, as such people can help drive innovation.
As for the future of Botetourt County and its regional partners, Smith said the gameplan is to compete with other areas with good standards of living, including those with superior broadband access.
“The business community was the one that was pushing this,” he said. “They looked at Chattanooga, and they looked at other places and said, ‘Why can’t we have this type of investment? Why can’t we have service like this that makes us compete?’”
Never miss a story with the daily Govtech Today Newsletter.