The federal effort to expand internet access to every home in the U.S. took a major step forward on Friday with the announcement of $930 million in grants to shore up connections in remote parts of the country where significant gaps in connectivity persist.
The so-called middle mile grants, announced by the Department of Commerce, are meant to create large-scale networks that will enable retail broadband providers to link subscribers to the internet. Department officials likened the role of the middle mile — the midsection of the infrastructure necessary to enable internet access, composed of high-capacity fiber lines carrying huge amounts of data at very high speeds — to how the interstate highway system forged connections between communities.
“These networks are the workhorses carrying large amounts of data over very long distances,” said Mitch Landrieu, the White House’s infrastructure coordinator, in a media Zoom call. “They’re the ones that are bridging the gap between the larger networks and the last mile connections, from tribal lands to underserved rural and remote areas to essential institutions like hospitals, schools, libraries and major businesses.”
The grants were awarded to a cross-section of state government agencies, tribal governments and telephone and electric cooperatives. They are intended to trigger the laying of 12,000 miles (19,300 kilometers) of new fiber through 35 states and Puerto Rico.
The largest grant, of nearly $89 million, was awarded to an Alaska-based telecommunications company that hopes to build a fiber network through a remote section of the state where an estimated 55% of people lack access to basic internet.
West Virginia received a grant of just over $25 million, according to press releases issued by both U.S. Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., and U.S. Sen. Shelley Moore Capito, R-W.Va., Friday morning.
“Connecting West Virginia with strong, reliable broadband service has been a priority since my first day in the Senate. Through my Capito Connect Program, I have worked to make broadband expansion in our state, and today is another big step forward. I’m thrilled to see NTIA providing support to southern West Virginia so we can continue our work to connect that last home, last school, and last business with reliable broadband service,” Capito said.
The particular focus of funds in West Virginia will be communities in Raleigh, Wyoming, McDowell, Mercer, Logan, Mingo and Summers counties, the senators noted.
“Access to affordable, reliable broadband is vital to the success and growth of our communities across West Virginia,” Manchin said. “That’s why I helped author the $65 billion broadband provisions in the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law including dedicated funding for middle mile projects like this one. This announcement is great news for Raleigh, Wyoming, McDowell, Mercer and Summers counties, and I applaud Appalachian Power for their innovative approach to making necessary improvements to their grid while also bringing broadband connectivity to Southern West Virginia. I have made clear that rural states like West Virginia should receive their fair share of funds as we continue to work on broadband deployment, and I will continue working with federal agencies, state officials and communities to bring broadband coverage to every corner of the Mountain State.”
The expansion is one of several initiatives pushed through Congress by President Joe Biden’s administration to expand high-speed internet connectivity to the entire country.
“The Middle Mile program is a force multiplier in our efforts to connect everyone in America,” Commerce Assistant Secretary Alan Davidson said. “These grants will help build the foundation of networks that will in turn connect every home in the country to affordable, reliable, high-speed Internet service.”
The grants were set in motion by the $65 billion allocated by Congress for broadband as part of the $1 trillion infrastructure measure Biden signed into law in 2021. Most of that money, $42.5 billion, will be distributed to states as part of the Broadband Equity, Access and Deployment, or BEAD, program partly based on new federal maps identifying areas that aren’t connected.
States’ allotments from BEAD are expected to be announced at the end of this month. States will then run their own programs to identify recipients that would then build out last mile networks to unserved communities.
Winners of the middle mile grants announced Friday will have up to five years to complete their projects once they receive those funds, though a one-year extension may be requested under certain conditions.