A National Solution to the Digital Divide Starts With States

Colorado is a prime example of multifaceted, complementary efforts to tackle broadband deployment and expansion

A Solution to the Digital Divide Starts With States
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Although the digital divide didn’t start with COVID-19, the pandemic has put into stark relief the need to bridge this divide once and for all. The solution—providing tens of millions of Americans with high-speed, reliable broadband—might seem like a daunting task. But our research has found that Colorado and other states are leading the way in connecting communities to high-speed, reliable internet.

The digital divide is a costly challenge to solve: A 2017 report from the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) found that 14% of residential and small- and medium-sized businesses lacked access to broadband and that it would cost $40 billion to get fiber optic cable—which carries broadband signals—to 98% of those premises. It would cost another $40 billion to serve the last 2 percent.

When it comes to closing gaps in broadband connectivity, “the easy stuff … has been done,” and the hard work remains. In addition to cost, the challenge of solving the digital divide is compounded by geography, demographics, and the types of entities that provide service, which can leave one rural community unserved while a local telephone company or electric cooperative is available to provide a neighboring community “fiber to the home and to the farm and to the cabin.”

States will be key to completing the job of expanding access to broadband; they play a critical and often overlooked role in shaping the way broadband reaches our doorsteps and enabling stakeholders from the public and private sectors to participate in connectivity efforts. State governments recognize that a single policy or a one-time funding initiative is not enough to get their citizens online. So, they are creating policies and programs that reinforce each other and will help reach the goals that are necessary to fully deploy broadband. For example, state legislatures have passed complementary policies that set service speed targets, set up funding and financing mechanisms, designate who can provide service, and regulate access to the infrastructure that providers need to build and operate networks. These policies create and support the work of state broadband programs.

States also have the tools and expertise already in place—including dedicated staff—to help local stakeholders overcome the barriers to internet access. These staff members on state broadband programs serve as a point of contact for addressing broadband challenges, provide information on state programs, and respond to questions from grantees and others. They also work to build strong relationships with local groups and often play a central role in facilitating coordination among communities and providers to advance broadband projects and policy.

Colorado illustrates this multifaceted approach to closing gaps in broadband access by funding both middle and last mile projects, providing support for planning, continuing to evaluate and improve on existing efforts, and collaborating closely among agencies engaged in broadband efforts.

The state’s broadband programs are led by the Colorado Broadband Office (CBO), which is housed in the Governor’s Office of Information Technology. The CBO focuses on federal funding, public-private partnerships, and broadband data. It also coordinates with the Department of Local Affairs (DOLA) and the Department of Regulatory Affairs (DORA), which house the state’s broadband grant programs, as well as with other state agencies engaged in broadband deployment, including the Colorado Department of Transportation (CDOT). Pew’s report on How States Are Expanding Broadband Access provides a more detailed explanation of Colorado’s program.

Several key elements have contributed to the progress being made by Colorado’s broadband initiatives. First, the state’s broadband grant programs provide funding for both middle and last mile infrastructure. According to the CBO’s executive director, the middle mile projects bring fiber as close as possible to communities, which are then able to form public-private partnerships to leverage this middle mile infrastructure for last mile projects—some of which are funded through a last mile grant program. Together, this work helps extend broadband service to rural and unserved communities.

Like several other states highlighted in our report, Colorado has invested in planning to build the local capacity needed to then be able to apply for support for broadband infrastructure projects. These grants, funded through DOLA, provide support for the development of regional broadband strategies. The planning process has helped educate community leaders about the importance of broadband and develop local broadband champions capable of moving projects forward; combined with the infrastructure funding, the investment in planning has led to the development of multiple networks that meet local and regional needs, including the Region 10 middle mile network and Project THOR.

Further, the state has continued to evaluate the impact of its broadband efforts and make recommendations for next steps. The CBO manages data and mapping, which helps the state assess its progress and—because DOLA and DORA grant recipients are required to provide geographic information system data on network operations for five years—helps ensure the accountability of public funds.

Colorado also focuses on how future broadband needs should inform its policies and programs. In October 2020, an interagency working group published a report, which emphasized that “policies must be updated to support the actual bandwidth needs of Coloradans” and made recommendations to concentrate on technology solutions and policies to meet those needs.

And, finally, although Colorado’s broadband initiatives are run through different agencies, the departments collaborate closely. The CBO leads a biweekly interagency meeting that helps ensure that DOLA, DORA, the Department of Transportation and other state agencies are aware of each other’s activities—creating opportunities for efficiencies and for troubleshooting any issues that arise.

A suite of policies creates the framework that supports Colorado’s broadband program and goals, including the executive order that created the CBO and enabling legislation for the DORA grant program—as well as policies focused on expanding broadband access and ensuring the quality of those services, such as addressing barriers to broadband deployment by electric cooperatives and requiring DORA grantees to adhere to the principles of net neutrality.

Other states are taking a similarly comprehensive approach, including steps to ensure that grants and loans support projects that meet connectivity needs over the long term. For example, states have set speed goals that exceed the FCC’s 25 megabits per second (Mbps) download and 3 Mbps upload standard for deployment, such as Minnesota’s goal of border-to-border residential access of 100 Mbps download and 20 Mbps upload by 2026, Washington’s goal of 150 Mbps symmetrical service by 2028, and Vermont’s goal of 100 Mbps symmetrical service by 2024.

Like Colorado, Maine and North Carolina provide planning and technical assistance to aid communities in identifying local solutions. California and Virginia have provided grants for middle mile infrastructure to help decrease the cost of deploying last mile service to homes and businesses, in addition to grants targeted toward building last mile infrastructure. And Tennessee and Minnesota have technology neutral grant programs that can provide funding to any technology that delivers internet service at broadband speeds, and either encourage or require that grant-funded networks are built in such a way that they can be upgraded to significantly higher speeds. 

As all levels of government work to address gaps in broadband access, policymakers can learn from states about effective strategies to expand high-speed internet. These efforts are built on multiple, mutually reinforcing activities that address components of what makes broadband deployment so difficult—from setting goals that look to future needs, to building expertise at the local level, to funding support to reduce the cost of infrastructure deployment. Through these efforts, states are making meaningful progress in ensuring that their citizens have access to reliable, high-speed internet access. 

Anna Read is an officer with The Pew Charitable Trusts’ broadband research initiative.

This op-ed was originally published in TechDirt on December 16, 2020.

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