A growing number of states are stepping up efforts to expand high-quality broadband—or high-speed Internet—in the wake of the federal government's national plan and the availability of stimulus funds, according to a new report released today by the Pew Center on the States. Driven by tight budgets to do more with less, many states are looking to broadband as a potential vehicle for promoting economic growth and delivering education, health care, public safety and other critical services more efficiently and effectively.
“States increasingly are viewing broadband as a way to gain a competitive advantage in a tough global economy,” said Susan Urahn, managing director, Pew Center on the States. “They face three key challenges: expanding availability of broadband, encouraging people to use it and ensuring high-quality service. Just about every policy area that states manage could be affected by expanding this technology. States' efforts will play a pivotal role in whether the new national broadband plan succeeds.”
Bringing America Up to Speed: States' Role in Expanding Broadband found that several states, including California, Maine, North Carolina and Pennsylvania, have been focused for years on availability, adoption and quality of this technology, focusing particularly on mapping who has broadband within their borders, but the majority are trying to catch up.
While broadband is available to most Americans, large disparities exist among states and localities, income levels, urban and rural areas and racial and ethnic groups. Only 65 percent of Americans have broadband at home, with the remainder—about 100 million Americans—saying they cannot afford it, do not know how to use it or believe it is irrelevant to their lives. Issues of quality—speed and reliability—also exist. More than half of the states still have local jurisdictions where less than 50 percent of households have access to broadband speeds that allow users to take advantage of standard Internet applications, such as audio and video, according to Pew's analysis of Federal Communications Commission (FCC) data.
Improving availability and quality in low-income and rural communities can be particularly costly and challenging. Deploying broadband to 250,000 housing units in extremely rural areas across the country would cost $13.4 billion, according to the FCC. State and local governments are trying a range of methods to reach these and other areas, including using community colleges and libraries as local computing centers, giving incentives to private providers or building their own public broadband networks.
The National Broadband Plan, released in March by the FCC, identifies a range of vital areas—business development, education, health care, energy conservation, public safety, elections and access to government, among others—that it says could benefit from broadband access and use.
States have a huge stake in these areas, and the FCC is encouraging them to make policy changes to help advance the plan's goals. For instance, once broadband availability is expanded, federal officials expect states to streamline rules to make it easier for professionals, such as doctors and teachers, to work across state lines and to revamp tax codes so online workers are not paying primary taxes in more than one state. The FCC also recommends that governments build more robust online services that would enable citizens to register to vote, learn about public spending or sign up for safety net programs without repeated trips to various offices.
Pew's report found that, by some measures, many states lack capacity—dedicated staff and resources—to develop and implement new broadband policies, negotiate effectively with private-sector providers or resolve thorny infrastructure issues, such as coordinating access across many different jurisdictions for fiber cable or utility pole attachments.
An estimated 15 states have agencies or authorities that focus on broadband expansion, according to the report. Before federal stimulus funds were awarded to help all states map broadband availability and speed within their borders, only about a dozen states had created such tools, and very few had drafted detailed plans for expanding access or launched efforts to explore broadband and its applications.
The American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009 allocated $7.2 billion to public- and private-sector efforts to achieve universal broadband. The infusion of support is expected to help expand broadband access through the physical build-out of infrastructure and to support programs that encourage more consumers to adopt broadband. The money is also boosting the capacity of states to collect better data and map existing broadband access and speeds.
The report can be found at www.pewcenteronthestates.org/broadband.