The failure of policy and leadership at the federal level in addressing the digital divide was ever more clearly exposed as Covid-19 restrictions were put into place last spring. And, as the pandemic continues to rage, daunting connectivity challenges remain.
Yes, the Connect America Fund (CAF) II program has doled out over $11 billion since 2015 in subsidies to the big telcos like AT&T, CenturyLink, Frontier, Windstream, and Consolidated ostensibly to upgrade rural broadband to speeds of at least 10/1 Megabits per second (Mbps). But, as Doug Dawson, president of CCG Consulting notes, it’s been a massive subsidy failure given that “even in 2015, it was ludicrous to spend money to build 10/1 Mbps broadband” – the same year the FCC defined broadband as 25/3 Mbps, which means “the FCC was investing in new Internet infrastructure in 2015 that didn’t qualify as broadband at the time of the award of funding.”
And there is reason to doubt that those subsidized upgrades were even completed, even as the FCC just extended the CAF II program for a seventh year.
So as states — and in many instances, local municipalities — step into the breach, the National Governors Association has released a new report that outlines a list of strategies governors can use to increase broadband access in underserved communities.
Published just before Thanksgiving, the report first lays out the challenge:
According to the FCC, in 2018, at least 18.3 million people lacked access to fixed broadband in the United States that meets minimum [I]nternet access speed of 25/3. 1 Of those 18.3 million people, representing 6 percent of the total population, 14 million live in rural areas and 1 million live on Tribal lands, which amounts to 22 percent and 28 percent of those respective geographic populations [even as] studies have claimed that the FCC data is undercounting the number of people in the U.S. without fixed broadband access, and that the total may be as high as 42 million people.
“In addition to lack of access, the cost of broadband services remains a considerable barrier for many households,” the report points out. “The COVID-19 pandemic has shone a spotlight on these broadband gaps and the need for universal coverage.”
For those well-versed on broadband issues, the report covers a lot of familiar ground: leverage existing infrastructure projects with dig-once coordination; leverage electric utilities’ infrastructure and services to facilitate deployments of broadband networks; coordinate and expand broadband affordability programs; and improve broadband coverage maps. These are all projects worthy of time and financial investment, and any forward progress made will better position states and municipalities to bridge the digital divide in the future.
One important omission from the report is a clear call for real broadband speeds that go above and beyond the current FCC definition of 25/3 Mbps – the absence of which is even more glaring considering that the Western Governors Association did specifically call for “efforts to adopt a higher, scalable standard that more accurately reflects modern innovations and bandwidth demands.” We have noted that 25/3 has been woefully insufficient during the pandemic.
The report also fails to wrestle with a problem that we believe the Biden Administration is likely to resolve early next year – state bans and restrictions of community networks and partnerships. The governors will almost certainly resent the federal government preempting them just as much as local officials are angry when states restrict local authority. Perhaps that explains why the report chose to ignore this contradiction rather than attempting to justify state-based restrictions on network investment.
But the report highlights several other strategies that are more worthy of attention.
Robust, Cross-Cutting Governance
One of those strategies, the NGA report recommends, is to “Establish Robust, Cross-Cutting Governance Structures.”
While acknowledging that “at least 20 states and territories have established dedicated broadband offices,” the NGA report recommends that states should go beyond that and also establish “broadband task forces and working groups,” highlighting as examples existing task forces in Maryland, Colorado and Minnesota that actively “coordinates with state agencies, local organizations and stakeholders in the development of the state’s strategic plan.”
In Minnesota, for example, Gov. Tim Walz issued an executive order regarding the Governor’s Task Force on Broadband. The order requires the Task Force to convene multi-stakeholders to produce an annual report, advising the Governor’s office and state lawmakers on broadband needs and barriers to access. “Governor leadership has been critical for creating and prioritizing these cross-cutting governance structures and advisory groups,” the report says.
To that end, the report also recommends states seek to “Initiate Strategic Partnerships To Kickstart Broadband Investments,” holding up several states as leading examples, including North Carolina, Indiana, and Vermont.
In North Carolina, Gov. Roy Cooper created a “Task Force on Connecting North Carolina” that includes the Governor’s Office, state agencies and industry partners, “availing the state’s broadband expansion campaign to outside expertise, funding streams, relationship networks and technical assistance capacity.”
North Carolina’s “multi-pronged approach,” the report says, has increased short-term Internet access, identified long-term coverage priorities, engaged a wider set of stakeholders to understand the state’s diverse digital needs, and built more local capacity. One example, the report’s footnote points to, is the Community Broadband Playbook, which was created using the state’s Broadband Planning Primer and Toolkit, developed by the Appalachian Regional Commission in partnership with the Broadband Infrastructure Office. The playbook is then used by the state’s Broadband Infrastructure Office’s technical assistance team, which operates as an “on-the-ground resource for helping communities build strategies that work for their specific needs.”
It’s worth noting that communities would be further helped if the state didn’t place significant barriers in the way of municipalities looking to invest in community-owned broadband networks at the behest of the telecommunications lobby.
Innovative Procurement Strategies
The NGA report also underscores the necessity of deploying “Innovative Procurement Strategies.” At a time when state budgets are increasingly strained, the report says, “strategies to streamline the procurement processes can include cooperative purchasing, umbrella contracts and bulk purchasing agreements, among others.”
On that front, the report points to North Dakota and Michigan as models.
In North Dakota, a network of state agencies, utilities and the Governor’s office have identified 2,000 rural households lacking connectivity. “The state acted as a procurement vehicle, inviting Internet Service Providers to bid on these selected locations to increase competition and affordability. This cooperative agreement, along with a strong commitment to connecting rural areas, has ensured that 99.8 percent of North Dakota’s rural students have [I]nternet access in their households,” the report notes.
However, the report does not mention that a major reason North Dakota has such high connectivity rates is because of the decades-long work to build fiber optic networks. According to FCC statistics, 81.7% of the landmass of North Dakota has access to fiber optic services from cooperatives.
In Michigan, the NGA report highlights the MiDEAL program which allows local municipalities, schools and hospitals to purchase goods and services at reduced rates while also reducing the time for soliciting bids. “Existing contracts include commercial broadband services for local governments. Many states include broadband in bulk purchasing agreements to leverage economies of scale. Alternatively, states may enter umbrella contracts with retailers to set a general negotiating framework for future procurement. Generally, these agreements are more flexible and responsive to current conditions, while reducing the need for immediate contracts,” the report says.
Some of these bulk deals are difficult for local Internet access providers to supply because the agency putting it together would prefer to deal with a single large provider rather than a mix of local ones. Any program like this should ensure that local providers are able to engage in the process on fair terms.
More Detailed Resources
All in all, the NGA report is a good starting point as states across the country wrestle with how to provide universal access to broadband. The 35-page report covers a lot of ground but doesn’t go into much detail on implementing any of the recommended strategies.
For a more expansive exploration of broadband basics, we suggest the Michigan Moonshot Educational Series. The Michigan Moonshot is an initiative of Merit, a half-century old research and education network governed by the state’s public universities. It aims to improve mapping, data collection, funding, and policy efforts across the state, and offers some of the most thoughtful and comprehensive advice for communities in a variety of contexts.
Another excellent resource is the New York City Internet Master Plan released by the Mayor's Office Chief Technology Officer in January 2020. The NYC plan offers a realistic approach for large metros where a conventional citywide Fiber-to-the-Home (FTTH) model may not be a practical solution.