A $1 trillion infrastructure bill was recently announced that guarantees $65 billion in funding to improve broadband access for rural areas, low-income families and tribal communities. FCC data shows that currently only 44 percent of US residents have access to fiber networks, and this legislation aims to deliver this essential service to underserved populations.
To learn more about the opportunity to expand rural broadband, we sat down with Carrie David, FiberLight’s Government Programs Director.
The passage of this infrastructure bill has generated a lot of media coverage. How significant is this news?
Carrie David: When the bill was signed into law, I do not think anybody in the public sector industry had ever seen anything like this. This is truly a once in a lifetime event for anybody who has been doing telecommunications or even infrastructure work. There are so many different layers that we are still unpacking regarding what this bill will essentially mean – including the rules and logistics behind it. Our team is actively working to dissect what this means for rural communities.
Why is connecting rural communities to the internet important?
Carrie David: I come from a small town, so I know firsthand the struggle for people in rural communities to evolve with technology. It costs a lot of money to build networks and develop the infrastructure needed to attract businesses, create jobs, and support education. Rural communities need to have access to the internet to help grow the local economy but they are often unable to get that critical access, and so they are effectively penalized. Covid brought this disadvantage into sharp focus. During the pandemic, entire communities were cut off from going to school, working from home, or accessing critical services because they could not connect to reliable, high-speed internet. It really highlighted the need to support broadband for all to keep that wheel of opportunity moving. That is really what is driving support for this initiative. We need to bridge that gap.
For FiberLight and our customers, this legislation will help to level the playing field quite a bit because now we can help rural communities access the funding they need to develop critical infrastructure and deliver broadband access.
What do you anticipate local communities will need to do to access this funding?
Carrie David: That is a great question, and also highlights another gap. There are so many little towns with no business development team, no IT director, and not even a stoplight. Walmart is an hour away. That is the type of community I come from. These communities do not have a resource to even ask where to start or how to get the money. Until now, if they even know about municipal grants they have been competing for funding with larger metropolitan areas with economic development councils who know how to go after that money. Those larger entities have a squad of two or three grant writers on staff. There will definitely be a learning curve for these smaller towns.
FiberLight’s public sector team is unique in that we can provide advisory services to small, rural communities to begin the process. We can share our expertise with community leaders and raise awareness among wireless carriers who service these areas. That is a big differentiator for us. We know the ins and outs of feasibility studies, which are required for filing grant applications for funding. We can also help by providing FCC census block data, and use our data analytics to match what providers can go into those communities.
We have all heard stories about big government programs that bypass small businesses or the average citizen. How accessible are these funds to the average small city that wants to get connected?
Carrie David: That is a really fair question, because the government is notorious for making these big announcements that get everybody excited, but then the communication that follows is vague and sometimes misleading. So, we are looking at the fundamental rules of how the $65 billion in broadband funding will actually get applied.
Right now, the Department of Commerce, who is championing this effort for the FCC, has a 180 day period to define how that money will be allocated and we are tracking that to see what will be required in terms of eligibility and how to access the funding.
The good news for small municipalities is that this time around the government appears to have learned some valuable lessons from COVID. This legislation prioritizes rural communities in terms of the distribution of money and resources. If a community meets the FCC requirements as being rural, that is the first step towards getting approved for funding. We don’t expect this to be a simple process. It’s complex.
At FiberLight, our Public Sector team specializes in connecting rural communities with the resources needed to access the funding required to build out dark fiber networks and deliver broadband access. We are passionate about raising awareness, forging partnerships, and helping our rural communities connect with next-generation technology.
How will FiberLight’s Public Sector team support the effort of connecting rural communities once funds are available?
Carrie David: This is a story that’s going to continue to evolve. FiberLight’s Public Sector team will actively monitor FCC news and review all of the information regarding how municipalities can apply for funding. We look forward to supporting and working with our rural communities, schools, healthcare clinics, and broadband and wireless provider partners to pursue funding through these grant programs and bridge the digital divide across our Texas, Virginia, Maryland, Florida, Georgia and DC markets.
FiberLight will continue to share updates as they become available, so please check back with this blog for the latest information,