States play a crucial and often overlooked role in closing the digital divide: This was a central message that emerged from a recent event hosted by The Pew Charitable Trusts’ broadband research initiative.
Leaders in improving broadband access in the states emphasized that although states differ in their individual situations and challenges—from geography to resource levels to political environments—they can learn about effective measures and solutions from one another.
The Feb. 11 gathering brought together state and federal policymakers, broadband-focused researchers and advocates, and members of the media at Pew’s Washington offices. Speakers previewed the release of a new report, “How States Are Expanding Broadband Access,” that highlights five promising practices associated with closing gaps in access to broadband services.
The report offers detailed looks at these effective approaches: stakeholder outreach and engagement, a clear policy framework, planning and capacity building, sufficient funding and operations, and program evaluation and evolution. Pew researchers identified these promising practices after a 50-state review of broadband policies and interviews with more than 300 representatives of state broadband programs, internet service providers (ISPs), local governments, and broadband coalitions.
“Over the last decade, states have been quietly rolling up their sleeves and doing the work,” said Kathryn de Wit, manager of Pew’s broadband research initiative. “And by relying on the foundations of good public policy—collaboration, responsiveness, and adaptability—states have made meaningful progress in closing the digital divide.”
Leaders from Minnesota, Virginia, Tennessee, Maine, West Virginia, Colorado, Wisconsin, North Carolina, and California echoed Pew’s findings as they discussed their own experiences running broadband programs. All spoke about the need for communication and collaboration among state agencies and local communities, as well as the engagement of state leadership at the highest levels.
The event also highlighted work happening in specific states. Maine, for example, has a new 10-year strategic economic development plan, and broadband comes up in every part of it. ConnectME, Maine’s state broadband program, makes grants to communities for broadband planning.
Peggy Schaffer, executive director of ConnectME and former co-chair of the Maine Broadband Coalition, emphasized how partnerships at the local level that include economic development organizations can help build community leadership capacity, which is useful for addressing issues beyond boosting broadband access.
“You get the right folks in the room and connect the dots,” added Jaron McCallum, state broadband director for the Wisconsin Broadband Office within the Public Service Commission of Wisconsin. He also spoke about how vital backing from two governors of different political parties has been in Wisconsin’s ability to build a consensus around broadening access. “Executive support has been crucial. It provides an overarching commitment, vision, and goals.”
The state’s broadband expansion grant program, which started in 2013, received a substantial increase in funding for the 2019-2021 budget cycle, something that McCallum sees as a direct result of executive leadership. “It’s the difference between talking about it and putting money behind it.”
Likewise, North Carolina’s broadband efforts have received bipartisan support at a time when different parties control the executive and legislative branches, said Jeff Sural, director of the broadband infrastructure office in the state’s Department of Information Technology.
“The governor and legislature couldn’t agree on a budget, but they did agree to fund the broadband grant program in an appropriations bill,” Sural said.
State leaders underlined that broadband was a priority and not just a technology issue because it is a key asset that can shape other policy priorities such as access to health care, education, and economic development opportunities. And they know their residents need to be digitally literate to gain the full benefits of public programs.
In Tennessee, the broadband program has partnered with the state library and archives through the Tennessee Broadband Accessibility Act, which provides grant funding for digital literacy, adoption, and education.
“Communities need to be able to use the infrastructure in order to benefit fully from it,” said Crystal Ivey, broadband director for the Tennessee Department of Economic and Community Development.
“Libraries can offer classes [in topics] communities need. Increasing digital literacy in an area directly impacts investment in infrastructure.”
There is no one-size-fits-all approach to broadband expansion, as the report notes. However, a number of states are moving forward by implementing promising practices and tailoring those approaches to meet their specific state’s needs, goals, and challenges. Their experiences can help inform other state, local, and federal efforts to ensure that all Americans have access to high-speed, reliable internet.
Anne Stauffer is a director and Anna Read is an officer with the broadband research initiative at The Pew Charitable Trusts.