Fearful of losing federal pandemic dollars, officials from states across the country are rushing to finish projects by the end of the year aimed at expanding broadband internet into underserved areas.
To comply with the current CARES Act rules, states must have the broadband projects, which can typically take months if not years of planning and construction, up and running by Dec. 30. Efforts are underway in Congress to provide greater flexibility in the funding.
In Vermont, the Legislature cut back on what lawmakers would have liked to allocate from $100 million to less than $20 million. They didn't believe they could have spent the larger amount on time, despite the need.
“We have to get it out, we have to get people to hook up,” said Vermont State Sen. Ann Cummings, a Democrat who chairs the Senate Finance Committee, which worked on broadband issues during this year's legislative session.
Now, the Vermont Department of Public Service is in the process of issuing requests for proposals to spend $17 million.
Potential contractors that usually plan years in advance are having to rearrange their schedules to do the work, said June Tierney, commissioner of the public service department, which expects to issue the first contracts in the coming days.
With broadband, the goal is to expand the service so it would be available to students studying from home during the pandemic, people who need to use broadband for telehealth reasons and people working remotely from home.
“The coronavirus funds that the feds are giving to the states can be used for the short-term in response to COVID, but broadband expansion is a long-term goal,” said Heather Morton, who follows state broadband efforts for the National Conference of State Legislatures.
Among the other states that are dealing with the issue are Alabama, Iowa and New Hampshire.
“Based on guidance we have received, we are looking at short-term, immediate solutions using existing technology to increase internet access,” said Mike Presley of the Alabama Department of Economic and Community Affairs. “That work is still ongoing.”
New Hampshire is planning to spend $50 million to expand broadband into underserved parts of the state.
“We’re moving as fast as we can regardless, but hopefully they’ll give us more time,” Republican Gov. Chris Sununu said during a recent news conference.
The end-of-the-year rules don’t just apply to broadband. Housing, and many business projects, are other sectors that traditionally require long lead times, also must be finished by the end of the year.
The Vermont Legislature appropriated $32 million of CARES Act money to deal with emergency housing issues, including finding permanent homes for the homeless, considered to be among the most vulnerable populations to COVID-19.
“No one has ever had to work this fast before,” said State Rep. Tom Stevens, a Democrat who is the chairman of the House Committee that deals with housing issues.
The goal of the $2.2 trillion CARES Act, passed by Congress in March was to help states cope with the coronavirus pandemic quickly. Generally, the money is allowed to be used for outbreak-related expenses but cannot go to replace tax revenue that has evaporated because of the economic shutdowns.
Many states have shared portions of the money with local governments that didn’t qualify on their own. They’re also launching loans and grants for businesses and housing and utility assistance for individuals, along with using it to pay unreimbursed costs for testing and contact tracing programs.
Democratic U.S. Sen. Patrick Leahy, whose Vermont home is located on a dirt road just outside Montpelier and has internet service that doesn’t meet the working definition of broadband, said he's been working to provide more flexibility in the pandemic relief package being discussed in Congress now.
“Providing states this flexibility would ensure that we can deliver broadband to as many Vermonters as possible, build housing for the homeless, and help businesses navigate the ever-changing marketplace in these challenging times,” Leahy said in a statement.
It's unclear what Vermont would do if Congress were to give the state more time to act on CARES Act projects. The Legislature is going to return later this month to make more spending decisions and lawmakers could change the broadband spending plans.
Vermont has mapped parts of the state where especially rural addresses don’t have any internet service or those that don’t meet the connectivity speed minimum definition of broadband. Officials are going to award contracts based on the best balance of expanding the technology and reaching the greatest number of people.
“This is triage, this is not like what we are looking for, a massive, wide solution,” said Jeremy Hansen, the chair of the governing board for CV Fiber, an organization covering 20 central Vermont towns to help expand broadband, which is considering making a bid for Vermont CARES Act money. “We may be setting up cases where we are going to serve one house, not ideal, but that may be the case.”
AP reporters Geoff Mulvihill in Cherry Hill, New Jersey, and Kathy McCormack and Holly Ramer in Concord, New Hampshire, contributed to this report.