NJLM Broadband Session Report

by Ken Fellman, Of Counsel, Helmer, Conley & Kasselman, PA

As an affiliate of the New Jersey League of Municipalities, JAG annually provides a session at the League’s annual conference on communications related issues.  JAG has had a history with the League of identifying and educating on relevant communications topics to New Jersey’s local governments.  In past years JAG sessions have addressed cable regulation, social media and wireless facilities deployment.  This year, on November 17th we gathered in Atlantic City to discuss one of the most pressing issues to New Jersey municipalities – new funding for broadband networks.

At the start of the session, we had a video welcome and an introduction of the importance of broadband deployment to all New Jersey communities from Congressman Josh Gottheimer.  Joining me on our panel was Christopher Mitchell from the Institute for Local Self Reliance and Robert Boyle, CEO of Planet Networks.  Robert spoke about the work his company is doing to connect New Jersey communities to 21st century broadband, while Chris and I addressed the new programs coming from Washington, D.C. to promote broadband deployment and usage in hard to serve areas, and the once in a generation opportunity this provides New Jersey communities to take control of their broadband futures.

There are multiple federal programs underway and in the planning stages that will aid with both broadband network deployment and broadband adoption.  Chris and I focused on two major pieces of legislation, the American Rescue Plan Act, passed on March 11, 2021, and the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act that was signed by President Biden two days before our session.  Both will provide funding that New Jersey local governments can use to deploy new broadband networks and can have the effect of promoting better broadband availability and adoption throughout the entire state. 

The funding from both bills require interaction between local government and the State.  The American Rescue Plan Act funds require applications through the Division of Local Government Services.  The Infrastructure Act will provide funding through the National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA), a division of the U.S. Department of Commerce.  Each state will, at a minimum, receive $100 million.  Beyond that, additional state monies will depend upon the conditions within each state demonstrating the extent of unserved and underserved areas, and whether the state applies for digital equity grant funds that will be made available under the new law. 

NTIA will be reviewing new broadband coverage maps from the FCC which will be available sometime in 2022.  It is currently participating in listening sessions to get input as to how it should structure its grant programs to states.  Once a state receives funding, it too must develop a process to funnel these funds to entities that will build the networks, including local governments.  In fact, the law requires states to collaborate with local governments in developing their rules.  How New Jersey does this is yet to be seen, and JAG has a role here in helping its local government members work with the state to ensure a fair process.

We received a wide range of questions from communities of all sizes at the session.  Some were concerned with how they might work with companies like Planet Networks to bring broadband into underserved areas.  Others expressed great interest in exploring the possible expansion of local broadband networks that might be possible with this new federal money, and how that might position their communities to develop partnerships with the private sector to bring more broadband availability and affordability to New Jersey.  Clearly, this is an issue facing a wide variety of New Jersey jurisdictions.  We had questions and interest about the new broadband funding from very small communities in Somerset and Cumberland Counties, suburban communities in Bergen County, larger communities in Ocean County, and even larger cities like Newark and Atlantic City.  Our takeaway was that broadband deployment and adoption, and how these new federal programs might help improve it, is going to be a critically important issue in New Jersey over the next few years.

It is not clear which department of State government will take the lead on implementing the funding from the Infrastructure Bill.  JAG members should note that on July 7, 2021, Governor Murphy signed legislation establishing a Broadband Access Study Commission.  The Commission’s role, in part, is to evaluate (i) impediments of access to broadband service in New Jersey and (ii) the feasibility of establishing community broadband networks in the State.  We don’t know yet whether this Commission may have a role in recommending how the new federal funding should be spent, but it may.  JAG members will want to follow the Commission’s progress and advocate for local interests, where appropriate.

Finally, JAG members should be speaking to others in your jurisdictions about what is being done to get ready for potential funding from the Infrastructure Act.  Do you have unserved or underserved areas that can benefit from better broadband connectivity?  Do you have segments of your community that need help with the cost of broadband?  Note also that the Infrastructure Act includes money for broadband planning.  If you haven’t already begun, now is the time to be starting that work.

If you would like additional info about broadband deployment contact Ken at kenfellman@helmerlegal.com. This session is now available on YouTube:   Broadband Panel at NJLOM