National Efforts to Close the Digital Divide Require Local Empowerment
Friday, March 12, 2021
National Efforts to Close the Digital Divide Require Local Empowerment
Findings from “Local Priorities for a National Broadband Stimulus,” a survey of over 120 state and local leaders
Universal broadband is the 21st century equivalent of electrification, foundational to equity and economic prosperity in urban and rural communities alike. As the Biden-Harris Administration and Congress consider the most ambitious infrastructure funding bills since the New Deal, states and localities have a once-in-a-generation opportunity to close the digital divide.
Broadband Equity Partnership conducted a national survey of state and local leaders, asking them about their priorities for a national broadband stimulus. Over 120 respondents provided insights into their investment and policy preferences, current and desired partners, confidence in deployment mechanisms, and community connection challenges. Respondents hail from 18 states across the country, including localities that vote across the political spectrum. They represent small towns, big cities, state and local economic development and IT agencies, utility companies, nonprofits, and educational institutions, and are at many different stages of implementing broadband plans.
The diverse set of respondents are aligned in their investment needs. As the federal government is preparing to allocate hundreds of billions of dollars for historic investments in infrastructure as part of post-COVID recovery efforts, our survey confirms a need for investments in broadband infrastructure nationwide and a new approach to funding for broadband deployment: 88% of respondents ranked fiber deployment among their communities’ highest priorities for investment. Beyond physical infrastructure, subscription subsidies and digital literacy and inclusion programs are the highest priority investments. Closing the digital divide requires not only closing the infrastructure gap, but also the affordability and adoption gaps.
To close the digital divide, the federal approach to distributing funds needs to change. Respondents have the highest confidence in the abilities of local internet service providers (ISPs) and local economic development agencies to use federal funds for closing the digital divide.
National ISPs have historically been the primary benefactors of federal funding for broadband. However, time and again, these companies fail to deliver infrastructure where it is needed. Survey respondents expressed greater confidence in more local, smaller ISPs as potential partners to develop tailored infrastructure solutions through federal funding: less than 25% of respondents have confidence in national ISPs’ abilities to use any future federal funds to close the digital divide, while a majority are confident in local or community-based ISPs’ abilities to do so. As one respondent pointed out, “The best local organizations to do this work are often not successful at obtaining federal funds, which go to the larger national companies. However, given their lack of [local] knowledge, [the larger ISPs] are often unsuccessful at expanding access.”
Indeed, communities see broadband as a cross-cutting economic development issue rather than siloed as information technology or infrastructure. Overwhelmingly, respondents see local economic development agencies as capable implementation partners: 70% of respondents are confident in these entities’ abilities to use federal funds effectively in closing the digital divide. Local governments’ other ideal partners depend on the unique challenges they face. For some, cooperation with state agencies with broadband plans is essential for overall support and matching the communities up with the right federal or state programs and private sector or institutional partners; for others, the most effective partners are the state public utility commissions; and some local governments already do or wish to operate as municipal ISPs themselves.
States and local governments want to determine their broadband futures, which will require changes in federal funding distribution and program standards. Respondents call for funding dispersal at the state and local level, with the flexibility to deploy that funding to directly support their own priorities.
Communities are asking for more accountability on how ISPs spend public funding. If the existing service provision definitions are retained, ISPs can fulfill requirements with buildouts that do not address community needs. Communities have so far had little say in the way the national ISPs spend federal funds to build out infrastructure, which results in buildouts in places the ISPs want to build, while retaining private ownership.
At the same time, more than half of state-level agency respondents indicated that they have “investment-ready” broadband plans but lack funding. The COVID-19 relief-focused $1.9 trillion American Rescue Plan dedicates $350 billion in assistance to state, local and tribal governments, and territories, as well as $10 billion for a new Coronavirus Capital Projects Fund. These funds can be spent flexibly, and investments in expanding broadband infrastructure or service are eligible uses. Several respondents successfully used funding from 2020’s CARES Act to fund broadband initiatives, despite challenging implementation timelines. Future infrastructure legislation in support of the Biden-Harris Build Back Better Recovery Plan is poised to deliver historic, longer-term investments in infrastructure and should continue in the direction set by the earlier measures.
Empowering local communities to close the digital divide requires meaningful policy changes that complement new approaches to federal funding distribution.
Broadband is already an essential utility and should be classified as such. 50% of survey respondents identified either utility classification or municipal ISP authority as a high priority for policy change for their communities. Many respondents seek broadband utility classification and the removal of policies impeding the public sector’s ability to provide infrastructure and service, including becoming municipal ISPs. These policy changes would increase leverage for local governments when partnering with third-party ISPs, set regulations around subscription prices and service requirements (such as net neutrality), increase access to utility rights-of-way, and provide more options for direct household subsidies.
Respondents noted opportunities for greater impact from existing federal broadband programs, including the Federal Communications Commission’s E-Rate Program that reduces connectivity costs for schools and libraries. Extending eligibility to other anchor institutions would enable greater connectivity in surrounding neighborhoods.
Rural local governments face additional challenges that require significant policy changes. Through the Rural Digital Opportunity Fund (RDOF), the FCC is using a reverse auction mechanism to direct up to $20.4 billion over ten years to finance broadband networks in unserved rural areas. Communities note that RDOF recipients are often not adequately evaluated on their financial and technical capabilities and do not have satisfactory buildout plans. Some echoed the words of one respondent who said, “The RDOF should be completely revamped or eliminated. Optimally, the funds should go to the State/Counties for specific targeting.”
Rural localities are also held back by broadband service definitions and their misalignment with the connectivity realities of those communities. In federal maps that determine eligibility for grants such as the RDOF, many communities that experience infrastructure and service gaps are mapped as having satisfactory service, rendering their digital divides invisible.
Localities cannot afford to wait. We hope that communities are energized by the urgency of the moment. As with the CARES Act funding, communities that initiate early partnerships and plan for “shovel-ready” projects will be better positioned to spend federal funds once available. As with electrification a century ago, achieving universal broadband access will be a long-term process requiring coordinated federal and local action. For local officials and national policymakers alike, decisions made now will shape more than just the nation’s infrastructure for decades to come.
About the authors
Ariel Benjamin wakes up in the morning thinking about how to advance the autonomy and creativity of municipal governments and ways to reshape public-private partnerships for more equitable cities. She is a Director with HR&A Advisors and a co-founder of the Broadband Equity Partnership.
Erman Eruz is a Senior Analyst with HR&A Advisors, specializing in the planning and financing of digital infrastructure and urban regeneration frameworks, both in the US and globally.
Danny Fuchs is the Managing Partner of HR&A Advisors’ New York Office and a co-founder of the Broadband Equity Partnership. He bridges the gap between urbanists and technologists when it comes to infrastructure, real estate, planning, and economic development.
David Gilford is a Principal with HR&A Advisors and a co-founder of the Broadband Equity Partnership. He helps public and private sector clients build equitable digital infrastructure, deploy technology in the public realm, and create long-term strategies for urban innovation.
About the Broadband Equity Partnership
The Broadband Equity Partnership is a new, mission-driven consultancy and program management team, powered by HR&A Advisors and CTC Technology & Energy, built to help government, nonprofits, and innovative businesses close the digital divide.
The Benton Institute for Broadband & Society is a non-profit organization dedicated to ensuring that all people in the U.S. have access to competitive, High-Performance Broadband regardless of where they live or who they are. We believe communication policy - rooted in the values of access, equity, and diversity - has the power to deliver new opportunities and strengthen communities.
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