What Are States Doing to Close the Digital Divide?

Benton Institute for Broadband & Society

Friday, February 28, 2020

Weekly Digest

What Are States Doing to Close the Digital Divide?

 You’re reading the Benton Institute for Broadband & Society’s Weekly Digest, a recap of the biggest (or most overlooked) broadband stories of the week. The digest is delivered via e-mail each Friday.

Round-Up for the Week of February 24-28, 2020

Kevin Taglang

Strong, collaborative relationships between stakeholders are the cornerstone of Minnesota's efforts to expand broadband access. West Virginia has promoted broadband expansion by examining and eliminating barriers to deployment. Colorado has made a significant investment in broadband planning at the regional level. In 2017 the Tennessee Legislature created the Tennessee Broadband Accessibility Grant Program to support broadband deployment in unserved areas of the state. Virginia employs two programs to achieve "functionally universal" broadband coverage. Wisconsin has found that small broadband providers can be important partners and community collaborators in grant programs focused on unserved and underserved areas. 

Their common goal: broadband so available that we all can take it for granted. As Jordan Beezley of Colorado's Department of Regulatory Agencies says, "It's like electricity. I don't have to think about whether or not the house I'm going to buy has electricity or whether or not that electricity will work. Once we are at that point [with broadband], I think we've won."

States are taking steps to spur investment in middle- and last-mile broadband infrastructure and close gaps in adoption. Whether they have focused on broadband for many years or have started their programs more recently, states are connecting areas where traditional models for broadband deployment have not worked.

“States matter,” said Kathryn de Wit, manager of the broadband research initiative at The Pew Charitable Trusts. “For the better part of a decade, states have been rolling up their sleeves and making meaningful progress on bridging the digital divide. As leaders at all levels of government look for solutions to address broadband challenges, they can learn from states." 

In new research released this week, the Pew Charitable Trusts looks at how states are closing the digital divide, delving deep into nine states: California, Colorado, Maine, Minnesota, North Carolina, Tennessee, Virginia, West Virginia, and Wisconsin.

Here are the important takeaways from Pew's report

I. Promising Practices

First, Pew identifies and explores promising state practices identified as central to the progress they have made toward achieving broadband deployment goals. The promising practices are mutually reinforcing. While they may build on each other, they are in many cases being done simultaneously and do not have to be sequential.

  1. Stakeholder outreach and engagement: States are actively engaging stakeholders in their broadband efforts to gain broad support and ensure that policy, planning, and funding are designed to serve all communities' needs. State officials accomplish this by:
    • Working with a broad range of entities at the state and local levels, including state agencies, county and municipal leagues, provider associations, rural advocacy groups, broadband coalitions, local government officials, local and regional economic development and planning organizations, business owners, health care organizations, and local broadband champions.
    • Collaborating with state-level partners on policy recommendations and evaluation efforts.
    • Engaging local stakeholders by educating local elected officials on why broadband investment is needed, building awareness of state resources to support broadband and how to access these resources, supporting local broadband planning committees, facilitating conversations between communities and broadband providers, and celebrating local projects. 
  2. Policy framework: State policy creates the framework for broadband deployment by setting goals, defining who is responsible for broadband and what those responsibilities are, and addressing how broadband intersects with other policy areas. To create a policy framework, states are
    • Defining a clear policy direction. States are establishing specific goals for broadband access, setting timelines for achieving them, and creating broadband programs.
    • Addressing identified policy barriers. States are identifying and addressing potential barriers to connectivity to facilitate investment in broadband infrastructure, clarifying which entities can provide broadband and access the infrastructure or rights of way needed to deploy broadband infrastructure. 
    • Connecting broadband to other policy priorities—including economic development, transportation, and agriculture—underscores its importance and can help build partnerships to improve connectivity. It can also allow states to use funds that are not specifically directed to broadband expansion. 
  3. Planning and capacity building: State broadband plans define goals and objectives, identify steps to achieve them, help guide state investments, set a baseline against which to measure progress, and provide a framework for local planning efforts. Local plans, in turn, help educate community leaders and residents, putting them in a better position to carry out infrastructure projects—and apply for state grant funds when available. At both the state and local levels, planning processes ensure a systematic approach and depend on stakeholder outreach and engagement to develop robust goals and recommendations that may inform policy and program decisions. Planning processes do more than chart a path; they help educate stakeholders and build the consensus, buy-in, and relationships that are necessary to achieve goals. States are both adopting state broadband plans as well as supporting local and regional planning efforts.
  4. Funding and operations. States employ a mix of grants and loans to broadband providers, nonprofit utility cooperatives, and local governments to support broadband deployment. But states fund and structure their broadband grant programs in different ways:
    • States are providing support, primarily through grants, to facilitate broadband deployment in unserved and underserved areas.
    • States put grant reporting, data collection, and other accountability measures in place to ensure that funded projects deliver the promised service and provide data necessary for the state to evaluate progress toward its goals. 
  5. Program evaluation and evolution: States are evaluating the performance of their broadband programs against stated or legislated goals, such as the number of new locations connected. These evaluations can inform next steps, such as addressing broadband adoption and digital literacy, or expanding the focus of a broadband program to broadband applications. 

II. Common Components

In addition to these promising practices, Pew identifies some commonalities that contribute to the success of state broadband programs:

  • Leadership. Successful programs exhibit strong leadership from governors, legislators, and agency heads.
  • Dedicated broadband staff. Staff who are focused on broadband can develop expertise. And assigning them to the issue creates accountability and responsibility, and provides stakeholders with a point of contact.
  • Visibility and responsiveness. Having visible broadband directors and staff who attend meetings and events around the state, not just near the capital, is essential—as is responsiveness to questions from grantees and constituents.
  • Connectors. Successful broadband programs build strong relationships with multiple stakeholder groups and are viewed by them as a trusted partner. They provide a neutral voice when educating policymakers and community leaders and become a reliable resource for information on broadband. 

III. Notable Differences

Of course, even though there are common threads in successful state broadband programs, they can also differ in program form and structure, the resources the state has committed, and the provider landscape:

  • State programs take different forms. Some states have broadband offices established by statute or executive order. Others have staff within an agency dedicated to supporting broadband. Programs may include coordination across multiple departments or agencies. 
  • State programs are in different phases. State broadband programs were established at different times; many of these programs are still relatively new. 
  • State programs have different resource levels. State programs are making an impact with differing levels of grant funding and staff resources. Although higher funding levels allow states to pay for larger projects, state grant programs can still have an impact with more limited financial assets. Resource levels also extend to staffing, which may affect a program's scope. 
  • States have different provider landscapes. States have different numbers and types of broadband providers. This variation is the result of historic regulatory and investment decisions that still affect who provides service and where—including middle- and last-mile availability. Some have robust middle-mile networks, while access to the middle mile remains a challenge in other states. Having middle-mile networks in place can reduce costs associated with expanding last-mile broadband service to unserved areas. Provider footprints may also be influenced by state laws defining which entities can and cannot provide broadband service. 

IV. Conclusion

State broadband programs are primarily defining success by the increase in the number of connected residents. But their benchmarks—based on speed, coverage, and timelines—differ. States are also looking at secondary measures of success, such as ensuring that broadband service is affordable and reliable and that communities have the knowledge and tools to use broadband to support their economic development or other goals.

The promising practices highlighted in Pew's research show that states are addressing the challenge of achieving universal broadband in similar ways, despite differences in funding and program activities. While no silver bullet will ensure better broadband connectivity, officials at all levels of government can gain insights from these examples on how to bring this critical service to areas that remain unserved.

Beyond the practices themselves, the research findings underscore that state policy matters. While most of the conversation about broadband deployment may focus on the federal and local levels, states play a critical role in deploying broadband, and their efforts are making a significant difference in expanding access.

Pew's research also found that technology is just one part of the solution. Addressing the digital divide takes time and investment, but working with stakeholders, drafting policy frameworks, planning across and within the state, managing effective programs, and continuously improving efforts yield the results that policymakers across the country are seeking.

Quick Bits

  • Senators Push USDA to Expand Rural Broadband Access (US Senate)
  • Who Gets 5G — And Who Gets Left Behind — Has Some Worried About Digital Inequality (National Public Radio)
  • How National 5G Policy Became Chaotic (Politico)
  • Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas regrets Brand X ruling that FCC Chairman Pai used to kill net neutrality (Ars Technica)
  • First Amendment doesn’t apply on YouTube; judges reject PragerU lawsuit (Ars Technica)

Weekend Reads (resist tl;dr)

ICYMI from Benton

Upcoming Events

March 2 -- New Debates and Tensions in Antitrust: What's Different about Platforms? (Georgetown)

March 3 -- INCOMPAS Policy Summit 2020

March 4 -- 5G Supply Chain Security: Threats and Solutions (Senate Commerce Committee)

March 11 -- Workshop on Draft Vertical Merger Guidelines (Department of Justice)

March 16 -- Promoting Equity for 5G Technology and Big Data (Rep Brenda Lawrence field hearing in Detroit)

March 16 -- CoBank Broadband Symposium (Minnesota Rural Electric Association)

March 17-19 -- ACA Connects Summit 2020

March 18 -- Workshop on Draft Vertical Merger Guidelines (Federal Trade Commission)

March 24 -- Technological Advisory Council (FCC)

March 25 -- Tech Converge 2020 (WashingTECH)

March 26 -- Forum on 5G Virtualized Radio Access Networks (FCC)

March 31 -- March 2020 Open Federal Communications Commission Meeting


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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Kevin Taglang

Kevin Taglang
Executive Editor, Communications-related Headlines
Benton Institute
for Broadband & Society
727 Chicago Avenue
Evanston, IL 60202
headlines AT benton DOT org

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