Nationwide, the COVID-19 pandemic has heightened demand for internet connectivity as work, education, and access to services have shifted online, highlighting the urgency of reaching unconnected Americans. The Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act, passed by Congress and signed into law in March 2020, provided more than $2 trillion in economic stimulus to address the pandemic. Among its provisions, the act created the Coronavirus Relief Fund (CRF), designating $150 billion for payments “to state, local, and tribal governments navigating the impact of the COVID-19 outbreak.”1 States can use this funding to cover pandemic-related costs incurred from the beginning of March through the end of 2020 that were not anticipated in their budgets before March 2020, including broadband access.2
States’ efforts to expand connectivity using these federal resources have focused on four specific needs: increasing access to online learning for K-12 and postsecondary students, supporting telehealth services, deploying more public Wi-Fi access points, and investing in residential broadband infrastructure, especially in rural and underserved areas.
An estimated 15 million to 16 million elementary and secondary students, especially those from low-income and rural households, do not have adequate internet access or digital devices at home to support online learning.3 As of this writing, 12 states have sought to address this challenge by dedicating CRF dollars to help families with K-12 students at home purchase internet-enabled devices, wireless hotpots, or both.4 Ohio, for example, set aside $50 million of its CARES Act funding for its BroadbandOhio Connectivity Grant, which will provide hotspots and internet-enabled devices to students from lower-income households through the end of 2020.5
Two states have also directed support toward closing connectivity gaps in higher education. For instance, Missouri allocated $10 million of Coronavirus Relief Fund money to support upgrading college campus broadband networks, providing students with digital devices or hotspots, and enhancing learning-management systems.6 And Tennessee made $20 million of its allocation from the fund available for grants to help public and private institutions of higher education implement either technological improvements to ease the transition to online learning or social distancing measures for campus safety.7
Digital health services, known as telehealth, connect patients to medical professionals via text and video conference apps and have become increasingly popular among consumers seeking nonurgent and routine medical care during the pandemic. Five states—Idaho, Iowa, Missouri, Oregon, and Vermont—apportioned CRF funding for broadband grants that target a range of connectivity needs, including telehealth services.8 Missouri dedicated $5.25 million to purchase 12,500 hotspots for Federally Qualified Health Centers and Community Mental Health Centers to support access to telehealth services for vulnerable populations.9 And Vermont set aside $9 million of CARES Act funding for health management programs, including COVID-19 outreach and education and expanded access to telehealth across the state.10
The pandemic has caused the closure of many places that people without home internet connections rely on to access public Wi-Fi, such as schools and libraries. To address this challenge, several states have dedicated CARES Act funding to the creation of more public internet access points.11 Idaho’s Commission for Libraries received $2 million of Coronavirus Relief Fund money to buy equipment that will enable 51 libraries in communities of fewer than 10,000 people to provide 24/7 Wi-Fi access to the public.12 Similarly, Arizona awarded its state library more than $650,000 to “expand digital network access, purchase internet-accessible devices, and provide technical support services to citizens.”13
Residential broadband infrastructure
States have also directed CRF dollars to expand the availability and affordability of residential high-speed internet service. Several states that did not have broadband grant programs before the COVID-19 emergency, including Delaware, Idaho, Kansas, Mississippi, New Hampshire, and South Carolina, have used Coronavirus Relief Fund dollars to establish emergency initiatives.14 For example, the Mississippi Electric Cooperatives Broadband COVID-19 Act dedicated $75 million for emergency broadband grants.15 And the New Hampshire governor’s office directed $50 million in CRF money to the Connecting New Hampshire – Emergency Broadband Expansion Program, which will support deployment projects that provide families, students, and businesses with connections to work, learn, and operate during the pandemic.16
Additionally, multiple states that had grant programs before the pandemic also have created emergency funds to direct CARES Act money toward expanding broadband infrastructure, connecting customers’ premises, and keeping households connected.17 Vermont, for instance, dedicated $17.4 million to a COVID-Response Accelerated Broadband Connectivity Program, which includes initiatives to build fiber-to-the-premises—that is, infrastructure to connect households, businesses, and other structures to high-speed internet—and provide up to $3,000 in financial assistance for line extensions, which expand connectivity to unserved streets and neighborhoods, a cost that typically falls to property owners. The state also created a temporary subsidy program to provide qualifying households with up to $20 a month to help pay for internet connections needed for online learning, work, or telehealth.18
And Tennessee allocated $61 million in CRF money to the Tennessee Emergency Broadband Fund to support new infrastructure deployment and public Wi-Fi access points. The program is also providing funding to better connect homes to existing network infrastructure by adding more service drops, which run from the service line to the customer’s residence, and customer premises equipment.19
Considerations for policymakers
States have directed significant Coronavirus Relief Fund resources toward providing temporary help, such as hotspots and public Wi-Fi access, for people who lack reliable home internet connectivity. These efforts, though important, are not long-term solutions to the problem of inadequate residential broadband service. As policymakers work to provide reliable, high-speed internet access to more underserved neighborhoods, they should:
- Prioritize connecting more residences to existing infrastructure. Broadband network infrastructure may be available in communities, but that does not mean every household is connected to it. In many cases, the last pieces of the network—a line extension, service drop, or customer premises equipment—are lacking. The costs to fill those gaps generally fall on property owners and are often prohibitive. Public programs that provide funding for these parts of the network can bring more residents online, particularly in rural and remote communities.
- Invest in planning and oversight for long-term solutions. Broadband projects represent a significant investment in infrastructure and can take months or even years to complete. Successful state broadband grant programs undertake extensive planning and stakeholder engagement to be sure projects are ready to launch when funding becomes available and employ accountability measures to assess the feasibility of applications, track grantee progress, and ensure that funded projects are successful and meet community needs. Vermont, for example, has a broadband program and an Emergency Broadband Action Plan, which identify short- and long-term needs and position projects to take advantage of funding opportunities, respectively. The state’s CRF allocations reflected these efforts and priorities, but states can use this same approach to deploy smaller amounts of money in nonemergency circumstances.
- Coordinate across levels of government to support broadband deployment. Current federal funding sources for broadband have limited engagement with state-level initiatives, which may offer more targeted strategies for addressing the digital divide. The Coronavirus Relief Fund offers more flexibility than standard federal funding sources, allowing states to tailor resources to meet their needs and build on existing progress and programs designed to close gaps in broadband access.
The COVID-19 pandemic has forced jobs, classrooms, and businesses to go remote, which has shone a light on disparities in internet connectivity and with it, access to digital learning, telehealth, and public and residential broadband service. Although immediate federal relief funds had enabled some states to tackle near-term challenges and temporarily expand internet service, addressing these inequities ultimately demands long-term solutions—investment, coordination, planning, and oversight—to provide more Americans with reliable broadband access in their homes.
- U.S. Department of the Treasury, “The CARES Act Provides Assistance for State, Local, and Tribal Governments,” accessed Nov. 3, 2020, https://home.treasury.gov/policy-issues/cares/state-and-local-governments.
- Internal Revenue Service, “CARES Act Coronavirus Relief Fund Frequently Asked Questions,” last modified July 6, 2020, https://www.irs.gov/newsroom/cares-act-coronavirus-relief-fund-frequently-asked-questions.
- S. Chandra et al., “Closing the K-12 Digital Divide in the Age of Distance Learning” (Boston Consulting Group and Common Sense Media, 2020), https://www.commonsensemedia.org/sites/default/files/uploads/pdfs/common_sense_media_report_final_7_1_3pm_web.pdf.
- The states are Alabama, Connecticut, Idaho, Maryland, Maine, Michigan, Mississippi, Missouri, Nevada, North Carolina, Ohio, and Tennessee. State of Alabama, “FY 2020 Budget and Expenditures—Coronavirus Relief Fund,” accessed Nov. 3, 2020, https://governor.alabama.gov/newsroom/2020/07/governor-ivey-allocates-100-million-for-alabama-broadband-connectivity-for-students/; State of Connecticut Office of Policy and Management, “Coronavirus Relief Funds,” accessed Nov. 3, 2020, https://portal.ct.gov/OPM/Coronavirus/Coronavirus-Relief-Fund/CRF-Overview; B. Little, governor of Idaho, letter to A. Adams, chairman, Idaho Coronavirus Financial Advisory Committee, “Recommendations of the Idaho Coronavirus Financial Advisory Committee,” June 9, 2020, https://coronavirus.idaho.gov/wp-content/uploads/2020/06/gov-approval-funding-recommendations-6.9.2020.pdf; ConnectMaine, “October Meeting Notes,” Oct. 28, 2020, https://www.maine.gov/connectme/sites/maine.gov.connectme/files/inline-files/Binder_1028.pdf; The Office of Governor Larry Hogan, “Governor Hogan and Superintendent Salmon Announce $210 Million in COVID-19 Relief for Remote Learning and Targeted Tutoring,” news release, June 29, 2020, https://governor.maryland.gov/2020/06/29/governor-hogan-and-superintendent-salmon-announce-210-million-in-covid-19-relief-for-remote-learning-and-targeted-tutoring/; G. Pender, “How Lawmakers Plan to Spend Mississippi’s $1.25 Billion in Coronavirus Aid,” Mississippi Daily, July 2, 2020, https://mississippitoday.org/2020/07/02/mississippi-lawmakers-earmark-1-25-billion-in-cares-money-for-schools-businesses-health-care-unemployment/; M. Rindels, R. Snyder, and M. Messerly, “Budget Bill Passes Assembly with Bipartisan Support with Amendment Allocating $50 Million Toward K-12 ‘Alternative Intensive Instruction’,” The Nevada Independent, July 19, 2020, https://thenevadaindependent.com/article/budget-bill-amendment-to-allocate-50-million-federal-funds-toward-alternative-intensive-instruction-in-k-12-schools; Missouri Department of Economic Development, “Governor Parson Directs Nearly $50 Million in Relief Funds to Aid in Broadband Expansion and COVID-19 Response,” news release, July 2, 2020, https://ded.mo.gov/content/governor-parson-directs-nearly-50-million-relief-funds-aid-broadband-expansion-and-covid-19; North Carolina Office of the Governor, “Governor Cooper Signs COVID-19 Relief Bills into Law,” news release, May 4, 2020, https://governor.nc.gov/news/governor-cooper-signs-covid-19-relief-bills-law; Ohio Department of Education, “BroadbandOhio Connectivity Grant,” news release, July 28, 2020, https://ohio-k12.help/broadbandohio-connectivity-grant/; Tennessee Department of Education, “Gov. Lee Announces $81 Million in Coronavirus Relief Grants for K-12 and Higher Education Institutions,” news release, July 7, 2020, https://www.tn.gov/education/news/2020/7/7/gov--lee-announces--81-million-in-coronavirus-relief-grants-for-k-12-and-higher-education-institutions.html; The Office of Governor Gretchen Whitmer, “Governor Whitmer Signs Bill for Supplemental Funding to Support COVID-19 Response,” news release, July 1, 2020, https://www.michigan.gov/whitmer/0,9309,7-387-90499_90640-533390--,00.html.
- Ohio Department of Education, “BroadbandOhio Connectivity Grant.”
- Missouri Department of Economic Development, “Governor Parson Directs.”
- Tennessee Department of Education, “Gov. Lee Announces $81 Million in Coronavirus Relief Grants.”
- Little, letter; KCRG, “How Iowa Is Allocating Its $1.25 Billion Coronavirus Relief Fund,” news release, May 29, 2020, https://www.kcrg.com/2020/05/29/how-iowa-is-allocating-its-125-billion-coronavirus-relief-fund/; Oregon Legislative Fiscal Office, “Certificate,” June 5, 2020, https://www.oregonlegislature.gov/lfo/eboard/EB%20Certificate%2006-05-2020.pdf.
- Missouri Department of Economic Development, “Governor Parson Directs.”
- HHC Coronavirus Relief Fund Language, Vermont General Assembly (2020), https://legislature.vermont.gov/Documents/2020/WorkGroups/House%20Health%20Care/COVID-19/Coronavirus%20Relief%20Funds/W~Jennifer%20Carbee~%20Draft%203.4,%206-10-2020,%20Coronavirus%20Relief%20Fund%20(CRF)%20Language%20Recommended%20by%20the%20House%20Committee%20on%20Health%20Care~6-10-2020.pdf.
- Arizona Secretary of State Katie Hobbs, “Arizona State Library, Archives & Public Records to Receive $657,694 of CARES Act Funding,” news release, April 17, 2020, https://azsos.gov/about-office/media-center/press-releases/1168#:~:text=PHOENIX%20%E2%80%93%20The%20Arizona%20State%20Library,technical%20support%20services%20to%20citizens.%E2%80%9D; Idaho Commission for Libraries, “$2 Million in CARES Funding Going to Idaho Libraries to Boost Broadband 24/7 in Small/Rural Communities,” The Argus Observer, Sept. 22, 2020, https://www.argusobserver.com/independent/news/2-million-in-cares-funding-going-to-idaho-libraries-to-boost-broadband-24-7-in/article_3c9d2d86-fcf7-11ea-92c6-537eef276bff.html; Missouri Department of Economic Development, “Governor Parson Directs.”
- Idaho Commission for Libraries, “$2 Million in Cares Funding Going to Idaho Libraries.”
- Arizona Secretary of State Katie Hobbs, “Arizona State Library, Archives & Public Records.”
- Delaware Department of Technology and Information, “Governor Carney Announces $20 Million for Broadband Infrastructure,” news release, Aug. 24, 2020, https://news.delaware.gov/2020/08/24/governor-carney-announces-20-million-for-broadband-infrastructure/; Little, letter; Mississippi Electric Cooperatives Broadband COVID-19 Act, SB 3046, Mississippi Legislature (2020), http://billstatus.ls.state.ms.us/2020/pdf/history/SB/SB3046.xml; A Joint Resolution, HB 5202, South Carolina General Assembly (2020), https://www.scstatehouse.gov/sess123_2019-2020/bills/5202.htm; State of New Hampshire Governor’s Office Emergency Relief and Recovery, “Connecting New Hampshire—Emergency Broadband Expansion Program,” https://www.goferr.nh.gov/covid-expenditures/connecting-nh; Kansas Office of the Governor, “State Finance Council Approves $254 Million of the Coronavirus Relief Fund,” news release, July 30, 2020, https://governor.kansas.gov/state-finance-council-approves-254-million-of-the-coronavirus-relief-fund/.
- Mississippi Electric Cooperatives Broadband COVID-19 Act, SB 3046.
- State of New Hampshire Governor’s Office Emergency Relief and Recovery, “Connecting New Hampshire.”
- These states include Iowa, Missouri, Nebraska, North Carolina, Oregon, Vermont, and Virginia. KCRG, “How Iowa Is Allocating”; COVID/Supplementary G.R.E.A.T. Grant Period, HB 1105, North Carolina General Assembly (2020), https://dashboard.ncleg.gov/api/Services/BillSummary/2019/H1105-SMMQ-19(CSMQa-13)-v-2; Missouri Department of Economic Development, “Governor Parson Directs”; State of Nebraska, Federal COVID-19 Supplemental Appropriations, (2020), http://dhhs.ne.gov/Documents/COVID-19-Federal-Supplemental-Appropriations.pdf; Oregon Legislative Fiscal Office, “Certificate”; Vermont Act 137: An Act Relating to COVID-19 Funding and Assistance for Broadband Connectivity, Housing, and Economic Relief (2020), https://legislature.vermont.gov/bill/status/2020/H.966; Office of Virginia Governor Ralph S. Northam, “Governor Northam Allocates $30 Million in CARES Act Funding to Fast-Track Broadband Projects,” news release, Oct. 7, 2020, https://www.governor.virginia.gov/newsroom/all-releases/2020/october/headline-860746-en.html#:~:text=Localities%20can%20apply%20for%20funding,broadband%20access%20in%20underserved%20localities; The Pew Charitable Trusts, “How States Are Expanding Broadband Access” (2020), https://www.pewtrusts.org/en/research-and-analysis/reports/2020/02/how-states-are-expanding-broadband-access.
- Vermont Act 137; State of Vermont Department of Public Service, “Connectivity,” accessed Nov. 3, 2020, https://publicservice.vermont.gov/connectivity.
- Tennessee Department of Economic and Community Development, “Tennessee Emergency Broadband Fund,” accessed Nov. 3, 2020, https://www.tn.gov/ecd/rural-development/tennessee-broadband-grant-initiative/tennessee-emergency-broadband-fund/.