New Study Shows State Barriers to Community Networks Decrease Broadband Availability

That community networks act as a positive force in the broadband market is something we’ve covered for the better part of a decade, but a new study out in the journal Telecommunications Policy adds additional weight (along with lots of graphs and tables) which shows that states which enact barriers to entry for municipalities and cooperatives do their residents a serious disservice. 

“State Broadband Policy: Impacts on Availability” by Brian Whitacre (Oklahoma State University) and Robert Gallardo (Purdue University), out in the most recent issue of the journal, demonstrates that enacting effective state policies have a significant and undeniable impact on the pace of basic broadband expansion in both rural and urban areas, as well as speed investment in fiber across the United States. 

Digging into the Data

The research relies on the State Broadband Policy Explorer, released in July of 2019 by Pew Charitable Trusts, and focuses on broadband availability across the country from 2012-2018. Whitacre and Gallardo control for the other common factors which can affect whether an area has broadband or not (like household income, education, and the age of the development), and combine the FCC’s Form 477 census block-level data along with county-level data to explore expansion activities over the seven-year period. By making use of an analytical model called the Generalized Method of Moments, Whitacre and Gallardo are able to track all of these variables over a period of time to show that there is a statistically robust connection between specific state policies and their influence on the expansion of broadband Internet access all over the United States. 

The authors zero in on three particular policies that they say have among the most significant impact on whether a community has broadband or not: whether or not the state has passed laws restricting municipalities and cooperatives from building and operating broadband networks; whether or not the state has a broadband office devoted to expansion and staffed by full-time employees; and whether or not the state has a funding program dedicated to expanding broadband networks. Each of the above is considered against general broadband availability at the national level, but also for counties classified as rural.

The study offers a number of conclusions local officials and state legislators would do well to consider:

  • States that do not ban municipalities and cooperatives from building broadband will see as much as 3.1% increased availability.
  • States with funding programs will enjoy as much as 2% increased broadband availability.
  • These impacts are more powerful when it comes to rural areas across the country. Further, the benefits are, so states with both in place can expect to see on average more than 4% more broadband availability in general and over 5% more broadband availability in rural areas.
  • States that do not ban municipal and cooperative networks and have a full-time broadband office lead to more competition in general.

The authors have helpfully provided a table which summarizes their results:

There are other conclusions suggested in the research as well. For instance, while the data didn't reveal any particular broadband boost for states with broadband offices staffed by full-time employees, we know that they are instrumental in mapping, deployment, digital literacy, and equity and inclusion efforts. In addition, having all three progressive policies in place not only speeds up 25/3 Megabits per second (Mbps) broadband expansion, but fiber deployment even faster (see Table 2 on page 10). This implies that municipal and cooperative broadband network builds either force incumbents to increase their fiber investment, that municipal and cooperative builds are more likely to be fiber, or both. 

In addition, the authors find that while removing barriers to municipal/cooperative broadband and the existence of a full-time broadband office do lead to more competition in general (by 1.8%), they do not at this point at least, lead to more competition in rural areas. This might be because municipal and cooperative broadband builds are the only ones serving those communities, after monopoly ISPs have refused to compete

Limitations and Future Directions

The authors acknowledge that reliance on the Federal Communication Commission’s (FCC) incomplete and overstated Form 477 data is a limiting factor, as is the absence of CAF, CAF II, and the USDA's ReConnect in the analysis, where county-level data doesn’t exist. The study ends by suggesting future directions, like looking at other data that could be measured against increased broadband availability: mapping programs (which we’re seeing in places like Georgia right now), more encouraging right-of-way legislation, dig once policies, or expedited permitting procedures, and other funding routes. They also point out that this study doesn't account for the qualitative characteristics of the three policies they focus on, and hope that future work will go into studying the effect that, for instance, the size of a state's broadband fund has on how quickly broadband expands.

There are some challenges with analyses of this type, as Brian Whitacre noted in an interview. Because the analyses above rely on binary propositions (i.e. if preemption exists, or not, and if a full-time broadband office exists, or not), it isn't able to capture the relative effects of stronger or weaker policies. For instance, broadband offices between states often have different strategies, and some states may have not felt as much pressure to create broadband offices because of comparatively better connectivity. Additionally, the restrictiveness of broadband preemptions vary significantly across states, from somewhat minor in California during the period under examination to extreme restrictions in North Carolina. One error present is that the authors removed Tennessee from the list of states in 2018 with barriers, though they remain.

Finally, Whitacre and Gallardo are careful point out that this study looks at broadband availability only, not broadband adoption

Americans need more than a connection to thrive in today’s digital age: they need a connection that is affordable and adequate, access to reliable and affordable devices, and to possess more than basic digital literacy skills. Although states are taking important steps forward to increase connectivity, the long-term impact of these investments would be further enhanced by addressing those issues of affordability, devices, and skills. In other words, states need to address these issues to become digitally inclusive. 

Whitacre and Gallardo end by emphasizing the importance of thoughtful policy decisions that put the interests of local communities first:

Ultimately, broadband access will continue to be an important part of our society – particularly in the aftermath of the COVID-19 pandemic. Policymakers will want to explore a variety of options for increasing both the availability and adoption of high-speed internet technology. The results here show that state-level policies do work and that they can have meaningful impacts on broadband diffusion in a U.S. context. From a practical standpoint, [they] argue for prompt action.

As FCC data (hopefully) and other broadband mapping across the country improves, we look forward to more explorations like these.