In September 2019, we interviewed Kathryn DeWit from the Broadband Initiative at the Pew Charitable Trusts about their State Broadband Policy Explorer. The tool documents state laws aimed at expanding broadband access. Now, the group has released a reported titled, How States Are Expanding Broadband Access, that examines developments in nine states where broadband availability has improved after implementing state efforts. The report dives into what those states are doing that works and makes recommendations to emulate those policies and repeat that positive trajectory.
All Hands on Deck
One of the primary discoveries from the report is that states are using many technologies and funding approaches to bring high-quality Internet access to those who have been left behind. Like other projects that involved multiple stakeholders and public funding, Pew learned that building broadband support and requiring accountability are factors that contribute to success.
Pew examined efforts in California, Colorado, Maine, North Carolina, Tennessee, Virginia, West Virginia, and Wisconsin. They also looked at Minnesota, where the Border to Border Development Grant Broadband Program provides funding for projects in areas where connectivity is slow and unreliable or where people have no service options at all. In Minnesota, notes the report, the state has established measurable and increasing speed goals and allows funding to flow to a broad range of recipients, including local governments, rural cooperatives, tribal governments, and large corporate Internet access providers.
Minnesota also provides a challenge process, which has been used by some of the larger ISPs in the past to delay plans for community-centered projects, as was the case in Balaton, Minnesota. In Colorado, the old approach involved a right of first refusal for incumbents. The law prevented upgrades new entrants wanted to provide better connectivity, as in the case with local provider Clearnetworx. In 2018, the state corrected the law to include a year-long time limit for incumbents to meet or exceed speed tiers of the new entrant-proposed projects.
After examining programs in these nine states, the Pew Researchers pulled out some common threads:
Stakeholder outreach and engagement: All states with broadband programs are working to engage stakeholders at both the state and local levels. At the state level, this includes broadband task forces and councils, as well as partnerships among state agencies. At the local level, it includes support for broadband committees and education of local stakeholders.
Policy framework: Many states have created a policy framework for broadband deployment by setting well-defined goals and a clear policy direction in legislation and tasking agencies or setting up separate offices to lead statewide broadband programs. They are identifying and addressing barriers to facilitate broadband deployment in unserved and underserved areas. And they are connecting broadband to other policy priorities, including economic development, transportation, health care, and agriculture, to build partnerships and leverage more funding for expansion efforts.
Planning and capacity building: Half of states have plans that define goals and objectives that provide a baseline against which to measure progress. Some also support local and regional planning efforts that help educate community members and build the local capacity necessary for successful broadband infrastructure projects. Local and regional planning efforts can help communities identify their needs and goals, start conversations with providers, evaluate options, and move toward implementing infrastructure projects.
Funding and operations: Some states are providing funding to support broadband deployment in unserved and underserved areas through grant programs that fund a portion of the cost of deployment in these communities. They are also ensuring accountability by requiring that grantees demonstrate they are providing the service they were funded to deliver while also providing the state with the data needed to evaluate the program and progress toward defined goals.
Program evaluation and evolution: States that are supporting planning efforts and funding infrastructure projects are evaluating the performance of these efforts and incorporating lessons learned. States continue to update program goals and activities as their programs mature, addressing broadband adoption and working to help communities make full use of their broadband infrastructure.
Build on This
Fast Company reached out to Christopher about his thoughts on the report and quoted him on the political environment and how lobbying influences state policies:
Christoper Mitchell, director for community broadband networks at the Institute for Local Self-Reliance, a nonprofit with offices in Minneapolis, Portland, Me., and Washington, D.C., urged students of broadband politics to pay attention to “the political challenges of overcoming cable and telephone company lobbying might.”
In an email, Mitchell defined the challenge for state-level activists and legislators as “how to deal with the incumbents and leadership that take a lot of cable and telephone company money.”
But, he added, states remain the best place to try to solve this problem, which makes this report worthwhile reading for anybody hoping to be part of the solution: “It doesn’t seem like the federal government is going to solve broadband deployment anytime soon.”
While some of our findings diverge from those at Pew, such as their assessment that Colorado's middle mile investment as one of the state's main drivers of last mile connections, Christopher notes that the report is important and well-developed.
If funding middle mile connections facilitated last mile investments, the problem would have been solved a 5 years ago. Middle mile is important, but has been popular because it doesn't upset politically powerful incumbents the same way that last-mile investment does. Middle mile is important, but does not change very much (or at all in some cases) the capital cost of the last mile network - and that capital cost is the fundamental problem that has to be overcome.
I think this is an important report because many states are starting to take action and I don't think there has been an in-depth look at different approaches. I think people talk at events and on the phone and decide to copy parts of this plan, parts of that plan, etc., but may not be seeing as much of the picture as this presents.
I think this is a very good step forward that others should pick up and build on.
Download the report at the Pew Charitable Trusts website.
Listen to our interview with Kathryn DeWit on the organization's fantastic State Broadband Policy Explorer: