On May 20, the Commonwealth Connect Coalition recently held its monthly meeting to discuss broadband opportunities and concerns throughout Virginia. Topics of discussion included the use of Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act funding by localities for broadband purposes. At the time of the meeting, the Governor’s team acknowledged that several CARES Act programs have the potential for broadband use. Part of this funding included $3.1 billion in federal aid to Virginia through the Coronavirus Relief Fund (CRF).
Virginia localities were allotted funding through the CRF and have a wide variety of uses for the funds. Potential broadband-related uses discussed during the meeting are included below:
- Expenses for establishing and operating public telemedicine capabilities for COVID-19- related treatment.
- Expenses to facilitate distance learning, including technological improvements, in connection with school closings to enable compliance with COVID-19 precautions.
- Expenses to improve telework capabilities for public employees to enable compliance with COVID-19 public health precautions.
Since that time, U.S. Treasury recently released guidance on use the of CARES Act funds as well as FAQs detailing use for capital costs and broadband. The following provisions of the FAQs are of particular relevance to broadband:
- Could Fund payments be used for capital improvement projects that broadly provide potential economic development in a community?
In general, no. If capital improvement projects are not necessary expenditures incurred due to the COVID-19 public health emergency, then Fund payments may not be used for such projects. However, Fund payments may be used for the expenses of, for example, establishing temporary public medical facilities and other measures to increase COVID-19 treatment capacity or improve mitigation measures, including related construction costs.
- May recipients use Fund payments to expand rural broadband capacity to assist with distance learning and telework?
Such expenditures would only be permissible if they are necessary for the public health emergency. The cost of projects that would not be expected to increase capacity to a significant extent until the need for distance learning and telework have passed due to this public health emergency would not be necessary due to the public health emergency and thus would not be eligible uses of Fund payments.
- May governments retain assets purchased with payments from the Fund?
Yes, if the purchase of the asset was consistent with the limitations on the eligible use of funds provided by section 601(d) of the Social Security Act.”
At this time, we are uncertain how much more clarification will be published the state and federal governments on this issue. The Virginia Local Broadband Network (VLBN) in conjunction with the Commonwealth Connect Coalition is planning to host a virtual meeting discussing potential uses of CARES Act funding for broadband. VACo will publish this information once it becomes available. If counties have specific questions that aren’t answered by the federal guidance, we encourage them to reach out to their legal counsel for advice.
Additional funding opportunities and resources discussed at the May Commonwealth Connect Coalition Meeting include:
- Education Stabilization Fund – Various education programs designed to help states, education institutions, and school divisions respond to pandemic education challenges. Funding may potentially be used for broadband related expenditures to promote distance learning.
- FCC COVID-19 Telehealth Program – FCC grant program providing eligible health care providers support to purchase telecommunications, information services, and connected devices necessary to provide telehealth services to patients in response to the coronavirus pandemic.
- USDA Distance Learning and Telemedicine Grant Program – USDA grant program providing rural non-profits, businesses, local governments, tribes, and consortiums support for technology and training necessary for telemedicine and distance learning serving rural residents. $25 million additional funds were added through the CARES Act. The USDA Virginia team recently conducted a webinar on the program. You can register and view a recorded version of the webinar – here.
- Virginia Wifi Hotspot Map – Map of public wifi accessible from a vehicle with more than 1,000 locations statewide.
- Virginia Telecommunication Initiative (VATI) – While infrastructure is unfortunately not a quick fix, it is the most viable solution for the problems this crisis has amplified. DHCD will release the finalized FY21 VATI guidelines in the coming weeks and we encourage all potential applicants to receive application assistance from the VATI team. Contact firstname.lastname@example.org for questions or to schedule technical assistance.
As previously reported, the Commonwealth Connect Coalition has also provided a website of broadband resources related to COVID-19, including updates from the Federal Communication Commission’s programs to Keep American’s Connected, waiving of Rural Health Care and E-Rate gift rules, $200 million in CARES Act funding for telehealth services to combat COVID-19. The site also includes links to efforts being undertaken by Internet Service Providers in Virginia and can be found here.
Additionally, the National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA) at the U.S. Department of Commence recently updated its database of 57 federal broadband programs, spanning 14 federal agencies. One such funding source includes the Rural Digital Opportunity Fund (RDOF), which establishes $20.4 billion in federal funds for reverse auctions of internet spectrum. A May 5 Webinar from the FCC detailing this process can be viewed here.
Upcoming Events and Deadlines
June 9 – VATI How to Apply Webinar | Register here
July 13 – Deadline for Letter of Intent for VATI Applications
July 13 – USDA Distance Learning & Telemedicine Program Deadline | Learn more here
August 17 – VATI Application Deadline
October 22 – Rural Digital Opportunity Fund (RDOF) Phase I Auction | Learn more here
VACo Contacts: Jeremy R. Bennett and Joe Lerch, AICP