On January 6, the Department of Treasury released the Final Rule for the Coronavirus State and Local Fiscal Recovery Funds (SLFRF), updating and superseding the Interim Final Rule (IFR) beginning April 1, 2022. Until then, the IFR remains in effect, but awardees can begin using the Final Rule for guidance immediately if they choose to do so.
The Final Rule makes some notable changes to the Interim Final Rule but the underlying philosophy that the funds should be flexible to enable locally derived solutions that are responsive to each community’s unique needs remains and is even more pronounced than in the IFR.
The Final Rule and Digital Inclusion
The first thing the Final Rule makes clear is that the original purpose of the Coronavirus State and Local Fiscal Recovery Funds program remains the same. It is to provide state and local governments with the necessary resources to:
- Fight the pandemic and support families and businesses struggling with its public health and economic impacts,
- Maintain vital public services, even amid declines in revenue, and
- Build a strong, resilient, and equitable recovery by making investments that support long-term growth and opportunity.
While the funds can be used for a number of different types of programs, they must address one of the following four categories: 1) Replace lost public sector revenue, 2) Support the COVID-19 public health and economic response, 3) Provide premium pay for eligible workers performing essential work, 4) Invest in water, sewer, and broadband infrastructure.
The Final Rule outlines a “wide range of programs and services to expand internet access and digital literacy” as eligible uses of the funds under the “Responding to Public Health and Economic Impacts of COVID-19″ category. In addition, new broadband affordability requirements are included in the ‘Broadband Infrastructure’ category. Treasury provides the following examples of potential digital inclusion projects in the “Responding to Public Health and Economic Impacts of COVID-19” category:
- Affordability programs such as subsidies that address the cost of internet service
- Digital literacy programs
- Programs that provide devices and equipment to access the internet to households (e.g., programs that provide equipment like tablets, computers, or routers)
- Services that expand internet access without constructing new networks (e.g., expansion of public wi-fi networks or free wi-fi in public housing communities).
- Other programs that support adoption of internet service where service is available
In the ‘Broadband Infrastructure’ category, Treasury requires SLFRF recipients to address affordability while building new broadband networks saying, “a project cannot be considered a necessary investment in broadband infrastructure if it is not affordable to the population the project would serve.” Treasury outlines two ways recipients should address affordability:
- ‘Lack of affordable broadband’ is now considered a quality that recipients can use to identify areas eligible for investment with SLFRF funds.
- If a project provides internet service to households it now requires the ISPs involved to participate in the Affordable Connectivity Program or comparable program.
How Communities Are Using ARPA for Digital Inclusion
Because the funds are so flexible, have a number of different uses, and each state and local government are creating their own process for determining how to allocate and distribute the funds, it can be difficult to determine how to access them. For example, some local governments issued an open call for applications while others distributed funds through existing programs. And while many states and local governments may have already determined how to allocate the funds, many will also receive their second tranche of funds from the program in the spring of this year, so it’s likely that not all the funds are allocated and your government may still fund digital inclusion projects. If you haven’t already, we recommend setting up a time to chat with your state and local elected officials to learn more about how they are allocating the funds and encourage investment in digital inclusion initiatives.
Some communities have already allocated a portion of their SLFRF funds to digital inclusion projects. We’ve rounded up examples from NDIA affiliates of digital inclusion projects funded by SLFRF in various cities and states across the country. Don’t see your project listed here? Send us a note with a short description of your project and we’ll add it.
The City of Baltimore will use $35 million of ARPA funding for digital inclusion purposes. Details are here and here. The first $6 million will be used to:
- Install at least 100 Public Wi-Fi hotspots in public spaces across 10 neighborhoods in West Baltimore.
- Extend City fiber to 23 recreation centers, which will support City employees working at those centers and provide the opportunity to install public Wi-Fi for residents inside and outside of the buildings.
- Hire staff with expertise in fiber engineering, Wi-Fi deployment, operations, and tech support, including a Project Manager and Digital Equity Coordinator.
Long Beach, CA
As part of the Long Beach Recovery Act, the City of Long Beach is implementing several ARPA-funded digital inclusion programs, including:
- Free Internet Services & Computing Devices Program: The Program will connect residents and small business owners to free digital inclusion resources during the COVID-19 pandemic. Free mobile hotspots with one-year paid Internet service plans and computing devices (e.g. Chromebooks) will be available on a first-come, first-served basis to qualified, low-income residents and small business owners with proof of income eligibility, a Long Beach address and an active business license (e.g. for small business owners), while supplies last.
- Digital Inclusion Resources Hotline: The Hotline will connect residents and small business owners to digital inclusion resources and services during the COVID-19 pandemic. The Hotline will be staffed by digital inclusion navigators who will provide real-time interpretation services (e.g. Spanish, Khmer) by phone and email to assist residents and small business owners find information about free and low-cost Internet service offers, computing devices and computer literacy training.
- Digital Inclusion Confidence Program: The Program will provide additional one-on-one computer literacy support services on hotspots, computers, email and Internet usage to residents and small business owners. City staff will contract with a community-based organization (CBO) who will host community pop-ups in neighborhoods most disproportionately affected by the digital divide and provide one-on-one sessions. Real-time interpretation services will be provided (e.g. languages to be determined).
The City of Denver, with leadership from Denver Economic Development and Opportunity and Denver Public Library, used ARPA funds to purchase hundreds of Chromebooks and hotspots for the public library to circulate in three-month loan periods. The City also used ARPA funds to purchase 1,100 Chromebooks to give away to those in need. Finally, the Denver Public Library is currently in the process of using more ARPA funds to hire four full-time digital navigators.
State Library of Ohio
The State Library of Ohio Board recently awarded a $60,000 ARPA grant to the Ohio Public Library Information Network (OPLIN) to support the implementation of the Northstar Digital Literacy curriculum in all 251 public library systems in the state. The ARPA funds, received from the Institute of Museum and Library Services (IMLS), will be used to purchase licenses to Northstar Digital Literacy for all Ohio public libraries. You can find out more in the press release and Northstar Digital Literacy website.
The City of Portland is using $3.5 million of ARPA funding to expand its Technology Kit project. The original Technology Kit project was launched with $5 million in CARES Act Funding in 2020. Through the original project, the City of Portland partnered with over 20 community partners to provide residents with devices, digital literacy training, assistive technology tools, and internet assistance cards to cover the cost of at least a year of internet service.
With ARPA funding, the City is continuing to collaborate with community partners to identify critical technology needs of BIPOC residents, seniors, and people with disabilities and is working closely with these communities to determine how best to spend the ARPA funds. You can find out more about the Technology Kit project here.
The Seattle City Council allocated $330,000 ARPA to support 14 community-based projects offering digital skill-building, technology access and navigator services. You can read more about these 14 community-based projects here.
Our colleagues have detailed how the rule impacts broadband infrastructure projects, so we don’t go into much detail for that section, but if that’s of interest for you, check out summaries from Benton and the Institute for Local Self Reliance. In this Pots and Pans blog post, Doug Dawson of CCG offers his insight into how entities are using ARPA funds for broadband deployment projects.
We also recommend reviewing the summary of the final rule and the applicable sections of the full final rule (pp 85-90; pp 294-315) for more details.