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.

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

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