Broadband and the States: The Critical Role of Partnerships

With $65 billion on the way from Washington to expand Internet access, it’s time for businesses, research organizations and others to join with the public sector to shape strategies to make the most of the funds

The recently signed $1.2 trillion bipartisan infrastructure bill sets aside $65 billion to expand broadband access and equity across the nation, a once-in-a-generation investment that acknowledges how critical high-speed Internet is to quality of life and opportunity in America.

The next move in broadband expansion belongs to the states, which are required to submit five-year action plans that illustrate how they will use the federal broadband funds to improve local economic development, education, health care, and other vital needs. It’s an important requirement because it will force states to focus on broadband as a means to a greater end, not as the end itself: Laying fiber in the ground is only a first step to creating a truly connected nation.

While broadband advocates have been working for years to bridge the digital divide between those with access to high-speed Internet and those without, leaders in research, industry and the public sector have concentrated their efforts on ensuring that communities are ready for — and benefiting from — the next wave of American innovation. Some of these leaders have waded into the debate on broadband access, affordability and use, with those in the private sector arguing that broadband availability and digital skills affect how they do business, how much money they make and the quality of life of their employees. The COVID-19 pandemic amplified these issues, while illustrating just how many Americans were without access to broadband.

Now, with the economy seemingly on the rebound from the most severe economic effects of the pandemic, it’s easy to assume that the overlapping interest will grow between those who have long advocated for increased broadband access and those newer to the issue — and that this increased access will create even more economic growth. The Richmond Federal Reserve found that “the long-run benefits of broadband access could grow exponentially, given the potential for innovation and productivity gains it provides.” A Purdue University study estimated that for every dollar invested in broadband deployment and adoption in Indiana, nearly four dollars went back into the state’s economy.

But these outcomes aren’t guaranteed. In fact, one in three workers still lack foundational digital skills: Nearly 90 percent of executives and managers report that they see employee skills gaps now or expect them in the next five years, but only about one-third of their organizations have active efforts to retrain employees. And a recent McKinsey study found that the pandemic opened the door to fundamental shifts in the health-care marketplace — with up to $250 billion of U.S. health-care spending potentially moving to a form of virtual care — but warned that it’s “not a foregone conclusion” that the shifts will happen without the industry changing its methods of providing care.

One thing is certain: The shifts — whether training clinicians on new technology, wiring households to fiber or retraining workers — won’t happen without partnerships. That’s why the timing of the state five-year action plans is so critical. Research from The Pew Charitable Trusts has found that states have already used planning processes to evaluate need, drive stakeholder engagement and map out a plan for achieving broadband expansion goals.

Now is the time for businesses, research organizations, community partners, and others to participate in the continuing state planning efforts, helping to shape state strategies for using federal dollars and developing plans that meet the needs of the state and its communities in ways such as sharing information on skills gaps in the labor force, identifying evidence-based solutions for increasing telehealth usage, or elevating how living on a fixed income may influence aging Americans’ ability to access digital resources.

Pew will continue to work with federal and state officials, researchers, and other partners to accelerate the nation’s progress toward universal, affordable high-speed Internet. This includes our Broadband Education and Training Initiative, which provides no-cost training, research, and strategic guidance to state broadband programs.

Given the potentially transformative nature of the infrastructure law’s funds, and given what connectivity would mean for households, economies, and organizations across the country, it’s more important than ever to find ways to help communities maximize the economic, educational, health, and social benefits of high-speed Internet. Achieving that aim requires business leaders, technologists, health-care professionals, educators, and policy experts to work together, sharing research and ideas to identify and solve the complex challenges that lie ahead.

Kathryn de Wit directs The Pew Charitable Trusts’ Broadband Access Initiative.

This piece was originally published by Governing on Nov. 17, 2021.

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