MASSACHUSETTS HAS BEEN awarded $145 million in federal money to expand broadband internet access, the White House announced Thursday.
Jacob Leibenluft, US Treasury Chief Recovery Officer, said in a conference call with reporters that an estimated 16,000 Massachusetts locations, homes and businesses, will be connected to high-speed internet through these initiatives. That represents 27 percent of those in Massachusetts who still lack high-speed internet.
Sen. Ed Markey, a longtime leader in Congress on telecommunications, said it is a “national tragedy” that people still lack access to high-speed internet, given how important connectivity is to modern life. “Massachusetts has cutting edge technological innovations, but we can still see the holes in the Berkshires, which is rural,” Markey said. “Black, brown, and immigrant families, they are left behind.”
The money was allocated through the American Rescue Plan Act, part of a $10 billion Capital Projects Fund. The fund was intended to pay for projects that provide digital connectivity for people to participate in remote work, education, and health care, with a focus on broadband.
Under a federal formula, Massachusetts is slated to get over $175 million from the Capital Projects Fund, which was announced in August 2021. But each state needs to get its plans for the money approved. Thursday’s announcement confirmed that Massachusetts was approved to use 83 percent of its allocation for broadband internet.
A White House fact sheet said the money will go to a “Broadband Infrastructure Gap Networks Grant Program,” a competitive grant program that communities can apply for to address gaps in broadband infrastructure where reliable broadband service is currently unavailable. Speeds will have to be 100/100 Mbps symmetrical, which means they have the same speed for uploads and downloads. Internet service providers must agree to participate in a federal program that obligates them to offer a $30 per month discount to low-income customers.
Plans to use the remaining $30 million for digital equity efforts remain under review by the US Treasury.
Gene Sperling, senior advisor to the president and American Rescue Plan Coordinator, said this money is a “down payment” on more funding coming through a separate infrastructure law. “The pandemic was a national teaching moment,” Sperling said. “Without reliable, affordable connectivity that allows more than one child to be doing homework and more than one parent to be working from home we cannot say we are really providing equal educational or economic opportunity.”
The White House is approving projects on a state-by-state basis. On Thursday, it announced grants to Massachusetts, Michigan, and Wisconsin.
Massachusetts has had a last-mile broadband internet program in place since 2014. Some advocates for rural communities have voiced concerns that communities that already spent money improving service will be ineligible for the funding. Federal officials confirmed Thursday that municipalities cannot use the money to pay down debts associated with completed broadband projects. Attempts by some lawmakers representing rural communities to get state money approved to pay down municipal broadband debt were unsuccessful.