Latest news from the world of broadband
Update March 25, 2020: In the 9 days since this article was written the need for affordable broadband has become even more apparent. Workers, teachers, and employees have scrambled to figure out how to work or learn from home while being disconnected. Some internet service providers have expanded discounted service plans for lower income consumers, either temporarily or permanently. Unfortunately, this won’t immediately address the needs of those who live where broadband isn’t available. The highlights below can help expedite connecting our communities.
For the past two years my work at the Federal Reserve Bank of Kansas City has focused on closing the digital divide. As part of this work, the State Broadband Leader Network (SBLN) invited me to Washington, D.C., to present on digital inclusion strategies. The two-day SBLN meeting followed a conference hosted by Pew Charitable Trusts that focused on its latest report on promising practices in broadband expansion.
The meetings have come at a critical time. In 2020, the Federal Communications Commission will allocate $20 billion toward 10 years of broadband expansion projects. This is on top of hundreds of millions the U.S. Department of Agriculture will dole out, and millions more to be spent by the states. But, as one state broadband director said, “This isn’t a silver bullet issue; we need silver buckshot to solve it.” In other words, we need more than money to do this right. The two events emphasized several factors that are critical to ensuring all Americans have affordable access to broadband, along with the tools and skills necessary to utilize it. I also heard about clever, effective new approaches communities are taking. Here are some highlights:
Knowing which areas do not have broadband is still an issue
Funding for broadband expansion typically is reserved for parts of the country that don’t have it, defined as areas with no service or with speeds considered too slow for modern needs (think dial-up). Unfortunately, we don’t know for sure where that is. Estimates of the number of Americans who lack broadband range from 21.3 million to 162.8 million. The wide range of estimates is no surprise to the FCC and others familiar with the problem.
States are playing a lead role in expanding broadband
State broadband directors typically are responsible for moving broadband forward. These individuals are charged with engaging communities on broadband efforts, mapping out which communities have the greatest need, and coordinating efforts with state agencies and elected officials to streamline policy. Today, according to the National Telecommunications Information Administration, every state except Mississippi has designated a state broadband director.
Several state-level efforts received attention at the Pew and SBLN events:
- Wyoming tackled broadband mapping head on. In 2018, the state’s broadband office launched a broadband/internet survey, asking residents whether they had internet and, if not, why. (Reasons could include: not available, cost, quality, not needed, etc.). Results from this survey, combined with on-the-ground speed tests, confirmed that many areas deemed “served” by FCC maps were, in fact, not. This information allowed the state to secure $4.79 million in federal broadband funding.
- Several states have changed laws to allow co-ops to deploy broadband. State laws often determine which types of entities can build and own internet networks. These entities could include rural electric and telephone cooperatives, along with local governments, regional internet service providers and large traditional carriers. Legislators recently have passed state laws designed to clear hurdles for co-ops in Alabama, Georgia, Indiana, Missouri, Tennessee, Texas and North Carolina, among others.
- West Virginia changed multiple policies to boost broadband. The state declared broadband to be essential infrastructure, which makes such projects eligible for Community Development Block Grant funds. This is a big step forward. It also established a dig-once policy to reduce costs associated with broadband buildout. In addition, West Virginia updated W.Va. Code §31H-1 et seq to provide internet service providers (ISPs) with access to state-owned infrastructure, expanding broadband with reduced construction costs. And, the state made it possible for electric utilities to investigate the feasibility of installing middle-mile broadband infrastructure. Finally, in anticipation of the FCC Rural Digital Opportunity Fund opportunity, the state will offer workshops featuring program details and “mock auctions” to give ISPs experience with the complex process before submitting applications.
Conversations on broadband and digital inclusion are shifting
Previously, people focused on why broadband was important, and often saw broadband as a straightforward issue. Expanding broadband availability and adoption, however, involves money, technology, policy and community engagement. It also underpins practically all aspects of our modern economy. All of this makes it challenging to identify the best path forward.
Bernadine Joselyn, director of public policy and engagement at the Blandin Foundation, suggested it was most helpful to begin the conversation by asking, “What is it that we want for our community, and what role does broadband play in that?” Framed this way, it quickly becomes apparent what sectors and community elements need to be part of the broadband discussion. More on starting these conversations later.
Stephanie Tom, California’s deputy director of broadband and digital literacy, shared that California’s state broadband council now includes representation from agriculture, libraries and tribal groups, ensuring that council decisions are shaped by a wide range of viewpoints and needs. The inclusion of two members of the state legislature on the council also helps keep lines of communication open between the council and elected officials.
Making broadband affordable pays off for states and communities
Multiple attendees emphasized that little will have been done to close the digital divide if many in the community cannot afford it. In 2019 the national average cost for internet was $72 a month, and more than $100 in some areas. Low- and moderate-income families often are unable to cover the cost.
States with their own funding programs can influence broadband affordability. Tennessee and Virginia have, in their own ways, integrated pricing into their decision-making process for broadband funding.
Local communities also can reap the benefits of addressing affordability. Islesboro is an island community of 566 people three miles off the Maine coast. Residents were determined to build a broadband network affordable to all, and voted to partially fund the network through property taxes. Now, with the build-out complete, 90% of residents have subscribed to the network, paying just $30 a month for gigabit speeds. This example also demonstrates what previous research tells us: Rural communities that are the most connected also are the most likely to see population growth. In less than three years since the broadband build-out, six new families have moved in.
Funding I: Funding digital literacy leads to better broadband adoption
Tennessee’s $45 million Broadband Accessibility Act of 2017 included funding for digital literacy training. “Because broadband accessibility without adoption accomplishes little, adoption efforts must be included in the State’s plans to maximize the economic impact and increase the return on investment of State funds.” Training typically is provided through local libraries on topics such as how to use email, pay bills or find jobs online. As Crystal Ivey, Tennessee’s broadband director, explained, “Increasing digital literacy leads to better use of the infrastructure. This is how we make sure they’ll use it when we build it.”
Funding II: Foundations are jumping on board
Minnesota’s Blandin Foundation focuses on “strengthening rural Minnesota communities.” Joselyn, the director of public policy and engagement, considers the foundation’s role as “upstream,” ensuring that communities are ready for broadband when it arrives. “People come together around health, education and jobs, not broadband. But we know all of these things are better with broadband.” Blandin has hosted annual statewide broadband conferences for the past 15 years. Community partnerships are designed to support local broadband leadership teams through grants and skill building.
The Maine Community Foundation also supports broadband, coalition-building and digital literacy training. Awards include:
- Community Broadband Grant program: Spending $100,000 per year 2018-21. The maximum award is $15,000. According to Maggie Drummond-Bahl, senior program officer, this is a “very broad program designed to meet the wildly varying needs of communities and regions working on this issue at many different levels."
- Investment in advocacy: Consists of a multiyear grant commitment ($44,000 in 2019, $49,000 in 2020) to the Maine Broadband Coalition to support statewide efforts to build support and educate the public and policy leaders about broadband expansion and digital equity.
- Investment in digital equity, inclusion, literacy: This is a multiyear grant commitment ($50,000 a year for three years) to a statewide program providing digital literacy classes through the library and university systems.
- Technical assistance grants: Currently supports the Island Institute and the Northern Forest Center, organizations that support communities and regions working on this issue. These grants range between $15,000 and $25,000 per year.
Maine is seeing results, Drummond-Bahl said. “Several of our grantees received USDA funding in this last round to launch implementation. We are seeing a much more supportive policy environment for broadband funding, and more people all over Maine have access to digital literacy classes.”
Solutions will come from local leadership
Community leaders, state governments, small communities and foundations are working to narrow the divide, and they are trying a variety of distinct approaches. The digital divide is complicated and multifaceted, and it affects almost every aspect of our economy and daily lives. Its widespread reach means leaders in seemingly unrelated areas have a shared interest in finding a solution.
It can be helpful for communities to do a landscape assessment of potential partners. Who has the capacity and influence to help address broadband access and digital literacy? Researchers can provide data, libraries can provide basic literacy and convening space. Other groups with a vested interest include farm bureaus, workforce development organizations, chambers of commerce, economic development organizations, community colleges, health-care and senior service entities.
A great way to start the conversation is to ask: “What role does broadband access play in the work you do?” If the answer is broadband is central to your work, consider getting involved.