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Kelly Wert: States Seek to Fund Broadband Upgrades in Affordable Rental Housing

Efforts in multiple states aim to address connectivity challenges for low-income residents.



The author of this Expert Opinion is Kelly Wert, associate at The Pew Charitable Trusts’ broadband access initiative.

Getting access to broadband services remains a challenge for many residents of affordable rental housing. Though these properties are often in areas that have high-speed internet service, physical access and cost may keep households offline. Older buildings, for example, may have never been wired for in-unit service, or may be in neighborhoods where infrastructure has not been upgraded. The available service, meanwhile, may be difficult for many residents to afford, creating another barrier to home broadband subscriptions.

Recognizing these challenges, several states have directed funding toward programs focused on expanding broadband access in affordable rental housing. California established a public housing account within the California Advanced Services Fund, which provides grants for broadband infrastructure, adoption and planning.

The public housing account, which offers “grants and loans to low-income communities to finance projects to connect broadband networks that offer free broadband service,” according to the California Public Utilities Code, received $15 million for the 2022-23 fiscal year. The money can cover up to 100 percent of the cost of deploying broadband in publicly supported housing developments, those operated by public housing agencies, as well as nonprofit organizations that provide state or federally subsidized affordable housing or farmworker housing.

And Rhode Island Housing, the state’s housing finance agency, created a digital divide fund to address availability and cost barriers. The program awarded $700,000 across two rounds in 2021 and 2022 to provide grants that support community room connectivity, in-unit access, devices for residents, and support to help residents enroll in low-cost offers.

States tap federal pandemic recovery funds

Pandemic relief funds are another tool states are using to improve broadband access in low-income neighborhoods and affordable rental housing. With money from the Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security Act, Virginia’s Office of Broadband funded five affordability projects focused on connecting low-income households. These included a project in Hopewell, a small city south of Richmond, that leveraged city-owned fiber to provide WiFi access to more than 700 subsidized and affordable units, as well as one in Portsmouth, a midsize city in the Tidewater region, to build a wireless mesh network that serves more than 1,000 public housing units.

Several states have also allocated a portion of their Capital Projects Fund dollars, a $10 billion fund created through the American Rescue Plan Act that may be used for broadband, toward improving connectivity for low-income households living in multifamily buildings. Recognizing that internet access at these properties often does not support resident needs, Nevada this year allocated $55 million in CPF money for a low-income multidwelling unit connectivity program. This program will focus on getting fiber service to buildings, with a combination of wired and wireless solutions that bring high-speed service to every unit. The state expects to connect 40,000 housing units by 2026. Connecticut is also directing its $40.8 million CPF allocation to improving broadband access in low-income and multifamily housing.

Massachusetts, meanwhile, is using a portion of its State and Local Fiscal Recovery Fund dollars to support a Digital Equity Partnerships Program with six different priority areas. One of these is a WiFi access initiative in state- or federally subsidized housing and low-income neighborhoods. The initiative will fund WiFi solutions for properties where residents face affordability challenges and other barriers to adoption.

A range of approaches

The efforts underway in these states will be critical to better understanding different models for connecting low-income multifamily properties, as well as how factors such as property age and type, resident demographics, and geography inform solutions. Analyzing how well these initiatives succeed can help inform states and communities in their efforts to bridge the digital divide, including as they consider how best to allocate funds from the Broadband, Equity, Access and Deployment Program and Digital Equity Act available through the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act enacted in late 2021.

Kelly Wert works on internet access in vulnerable communities for The Pew Charitable Trusts’ broadband access initiative. This piece was originally published by Pew on April 12, 2023, and is republished with permission.

Broadband Breakfast accepts commentary from informed observers of the broadband scene. Please send pieces to The views expressed in Expert Opinion pieces do not necessarily reflect the views of Broadband Breakfast and Breakfast Media LLC.

Broadband Breakfast is a decade-old news organization based in Washington that is building a community of interest around broadband policy and internet technology, with a particular focus on better broadband infrastructure, the politics of privacy and the regulation of social media. Learn more about Broadband Breakfast.

Community Broadband

Gigi Sohn Announced as New Executive Director of the American Association for Public Broadband

In surprise announcement at keynote luncheon, Sohn revealed as the first executive director of the new organization advocating for municipalities.



Photo of Gigi Sohn at press conference at Broadband Communities by Drew Clark

HOUSTON, May 3, 2023 – President Joe Biden’s former Federal Communications Commission nominee Gigi Sohn concluded her keynote remarks at the Broadband Communities Summit here with the announcement that she will be the first executive director of the American Association for Public Broadband.

“With money flowing from federal governments down to states and localities for public broadband to have a network that works for them,” Sohn said, “now is the perfect time“ to join the new association, whose founding was announced at the summit here last May.

Sohn said that public providers need to “have access to the same funding as private” ISPs.

In remarks at a press conference following the announcement, Sohn highlighted the need for public broadband advocates to find local community champions for broadband networks.

Such champions, Sohn said, need to say: “I want this, my community needs this, and we are going to figure out a way to have this.”

“We need to find those people,” she said of the state and local champions for broadband. “An awful lot of them are in conservative states.”

In announcing her new position in a fireside chat, Sohn talked about her 16 months after being designated a Federal Communications Commissioner by President Biden in November 2021, the trials of three congressional hearings, and her decision to withdraw her nomination from consideration in March 2023 after failing to secure the votes for Senate passage.

Sohn spoke in the luncheon keynote with Kim McKinley, chief marketing officer at UTOPIA Fiber, and Bob Knight, a local government official from Richfield, Connecticut.

Vocal advocate for public broadband

Sohn has been a vocal advocate of public broadband for years, and said that “there should be a level playing field” between public and private broadband. “This is about freedom for communities and their leaders to choose what kind of broadband their residents should have,” she said.

Sohn’s leadership of the association will focus on building this freedom for public broadband, she said.

She said that her number one priority will be to increase membership of AAPB, she said. The next priority will be to ensure that public broadband entities have access to federal funding coming down the pipeline on an equal basis to private companies.

The non-profit AAPB was founded by state and local broadband officials to build a diverse membership of public broadband networks nationwide and advocate for municipal broadband at all government levels.

“Until now, there has not been a membership-based advocacy organization that works to ensure that public broadband can grow unimpeded by anti-competitive barriers,” said Sohn. “We have the chance to make a positive case for states to fund and communities to choose public broadband and oppose barriers to local choice.”

Speaking of her 16 month ordeal, Sohn said it was “enormously frustrating” to not be able to talk about important issues during the process.

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Community Broadband

Public-Private Partnership Provides Access and Affordability Solutions in Brownsville

In 2014, Brownsville was ranked as the worst-connected city in the United States.



Photo of Brownsville Assistant City Manager Elizabeth Walker at the Broadband Communities Summit by Drew Clark

HOUSTON, May 2, 2023 — In a city previously known for having the worst digital divide in the country, a new public-private partnership is offering potential solutions for building out middle mile and last mile fiber infrastructure while remaining accessible for a low-income population.

The city of Brownsville, Texas and its private partner Lit Communities are working together to “speak to exactly those concerns that our constituents expressed to us — access and affordability,” said Elizabeth Walker, Brownsville’s assistant city manager, in a keynote address at the Broadband Communities Summit on Monday.

Brownsville is investing $19.5 million in funding from the American Rescue Plan Act to construct middle mile infrastructure and connect community anchor institutions, and private providers will closely follow to build out the last mile network. The initiative, called BTX Fiber, will utilize an open access model to promote competition.

In 2014, the National Digital Inclusion Alliance ranked Brownsville as the worst-connected city in the United States, noting that 44.8 percent of the city’s households lacked internet access.

Over the course of the COVID-19 pandemic, the city’s growing digital divide had significant costs for residents who were unable to participate in remote work or education.

“The digital divide was very real, and it was crushing the potential of the next generation,” Walker said.

In addition to a lack of broadband availability, many residents also struggled with a lack of affordability, Walker added. In fact, affordability was mentioned by nearly a third of the residents who commented in a feasibility study commissioned by the city.

“Our population is, by every definition, low income and suffers the challenges of that socioeconomic burden… a full third of our population is categorically within poverty,” she said.

BTX Fiber’s pricing structure was carefully designed to provide a service tier that would be completely subsidized through the Affordable Connectivity Program for eligible households, offering symmetrical speeds of 100 megabits per second. On the upper end, the network aims to provide symmetrical gigabit speeds.

Walker highlighted the need for augmenting staff as one of the major lessons learned throughout the process. In addition to bringing in technological subject matter experts, the city is partnering with a local college to create a workforce development program in hopes of training workers to install the middle mile infrastructure.

Another takeaway from the project has been the importance of staying agile, Walker said. “Where we are right now… is not necessarily how it is we thought we would get to where we are.”

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Broadband's Impact

CLIC, AAPB and Broadband Breakfast Host Super Session on Community Broadband Initiatives on May 1

Brought to you by the Coalition for Local Internet Choice, the American Association for Public Broadband and Broadband Breakfast.



Brownsville Assistant City Manager Elizabeth Walker

April 26, 2023 – Three organizations that share a commitment to enhancing broadband connectivity by local governments will join together in hosting a “super session” at the Broadband Communities Summit on Monday, May 1, at 12 Noon CT.

This exciting session will be the kickoff of the four-day conference at the Woodlands Waterway Marriott Hotel & Convention Center near Houston, Texas, and includes a keynote speak by Elizabeth Walker, Assistant City Manager in Brownsville, Texas.

Register for the session online for FREE.

Register to attend the session at the Broadband Communities Summit.

The organizations hosting the event – the Coalition for Local Internet Choice, the American Association for Public Broadband, and Broadband Breakfast – have orchestrated two panels, one on “Pushing Back on Barriers to Public Broadband Initiatives and Partnerships” and the other on “The Role of Partnerships In Meeting America’s Broadband Challenges.”

See the full program of the super session, and the entire Broadband Communities Summit

Vital role of local government in broadband decisions

Local governments are increasingly making key broadband infrastructure decisions, as owners, operators, or partners.

Following the keynote remarks by Assistant City Manager Walker, this three-hour workshop will focus on how to fight back against organized misinformation campaigns designed to derail public broadband initiatives and partnerships, including what communities can do to identify and resist state measures that may explicitly or effectively exclude them from eligibility for federal, state, and other funding resources.

The second panel will focus on the critical role of broadband partnerships in America’s broadband future and the key features of successful partnerships.

Opening Welcome and Introduction:

  • Jim Baller – President, Coalition for Local Internet Choice

Introduction of Keynoter:

  • Drew Clark – Editor and Publisher, Broadband Breakfast; Attorney at Law, Drew Clark PLLC


First Panel: Pushing Back on Barriers to Public Broadband Initiatives and Partnerships

  • Christopher Mitchell (moderator) – Director, Community Broadband Networks, Institute for Local Self-Reliance
  • Terry Huval – Executive Director, Transmission Access Policy Study Group (TAPS)
  • Peggy Schaffer – Board Member, American Association of Public Broadband
  • Scott Menhart – Member of the Board of Directors, American Association for Public Broadband; CTO, Traverse City (MI) Light & Power

Second Panel: The Role of Partnerships In Meeting America’s Broadband Challenges

Following the three-hour super-session, from 3 p.m. to 6 p.m. CT, five members of Keller & Heckman’s telecommunications group will highlight the key legal issues at each stage.

This session will include identifying and dealing with authority issues and procedures; maximizing funding opportunities; developing strategic partnerships; securing access to infrastructure, content, and customers; establishing effective governance structures; understanding evolving cybersecurity and privacy requirements; implementing 911 and other emergency management rules; drafting effective agreements of many kinds; complying with federal, state, and local regulatory requirements; and much more.

Register for the session online for FREE.

Register to attend the session at the Broadband Communities Summit.

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