On Monday, November 15th, 2021, President Biden signed the Bipartisan Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act (IIJA) into law. The IIJA includes meaningful benefits for persistent poverty counties. Most notably, the IIJA provides $2 billion to the Rural Utility Service’s “ReConnect Program” specifically to fund broadband projects in rural areas. A key element of this funding is that the local matching requirements are waived for projects servicing areas that are at least 75% comprised of persistent poverty counties. This is important for promoting digital equity across the country because persistent poverty counties, and especially rural, persistent poverty counties, lag far behind the rest of the country in broadband access. And as Partners for Rural Transformation has previously written about, waiving match for persistently poor rural areas that do not have access to resources for match is an important way we as a nation can promote more just and equitable economic development.
For context, a persistent poverty county is any county that has had 20 percent or more of its population living in poverty over the past 30 years. There is a disproportionate overlap between Rural America and persistent poverty counties, with 86% of persistent poverty counties having entirely rural populations, about 12% of the entire U.S. rural population. Additionally, the USDA recently found that only 64.1% of households in rural, persistent poverty counties have access to broadband, as compared to 84.7% of urban, non-persistent poverty counties. Rural persistent poverty counties even lag behind urban persistent poverty counties when it comes to broadband, with 75.9% of households in urban persistent poverty counties having access, although affordability continues to be an issue across the board. Essentially, decades of disinvestment have resulted in a significant portion of rural America lagging behind the rest of the country in broadband access.
In addition to waiving matching requirements for persistent poverty counties, the IIJA necessitates that at least 50% of households served by a project must be from a rural area without access to broadband (measured by less than 25 megabits per second (mbps) download/3 mbps upload). Ten percent of these funds must be made available to areas where at least 90% of households served by a project are in a rural area without broadband. The combination of these two guidelines stipulate that around $1 billion will be spent on broadband in Rural America, about $200 million of which will go to areas with an extreme lack of broadband. Due to the large overlap between Rural America and households without broadband in persistent poverty counties, this should result in a significant portion of funds being available to persistent poverty counties for their broadband projects.
While funding availability for broadband in persistent poverty counties is important, it is also critical that projects are built to acceptable broadband standards. To this end, the IIJA requires projects to build out broadband to speeds of at least 100mbps download/20 mbps upload. By requiring 100mbps download/20 mbps upload for projects, the IIJA continues the guidelines set by the American Rescue Plan Act for federal broadband funding, and cements PRT Member Fahe’s broadband policy recommendation as the current federal standard.
The IIJA has the potential to reduce the digital divide between persistent poverty counties and the rest of America. The $2 billion available to rural communities through the ReConnect Program, without matching requirements for projects primarily serving persistent poverty counties, could significantly improve broadband access in those areas. However, it will be important to monitor projects funded through this program to accurately assess the IIJA’s impact on broadband access in persistent poverty communities.
 Text – H.R.3684 The Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act Pgs. 923-925 – 117th Congress (2021-2022). Please note that matching funds are also waived for Alaska Native Corporations for federally-recognized Tribes, on substantially underserved Trust areas, as defined in 7 U.S.C. 936f(a)(2), and residents of a rural area that was recognized as a colonia as of October 1, 1989.