The coronavirus outbreak has made the need for broadband expansion clear. News reports have focused on the homework gap and the need for accessibility of telehealth services. The recently enacted federal stimulus package, meanwhile, included several provisions intended to help people get the assistance and services they need online. But for millions of Americans currently without access to high-speed, reliable internet, being asked to stay home means being cut off from family, friends, work, school, and vital information.
Even before the current public health emergency made long-standing disparities more starkly apparent, expanding broadband access had been a priority and focus of public policy. In late October, the Benton Institute for Broadband & Society released a report that explores how leaders at all levels of government can push toward a more connected future. Based in Chicago, the research organization focuses on boosting the availability of high-speed internet.
One of the key findings is that state governments must play a crucial role in expanding Americans’ access to broadband services. The report, Broadband for America’s Future: A Vision for the 2020s, examines ways that policymakers at all levels of government can help expand reliable broadband access to every American by the end of the decade. It notes that achieving this goal is important to improve the lives of individuals and critical to addressing pressing policy priorities.
“Broadband will not solve every problem, but we cannot solve our biggest challenges—including in agriculture, climate change, education, health care, and the economy—without broadband,” Jon Sallet, Benton senior fellow, wrote in the report, which was released several months before the novel coronavirus started to spread rapidly in the U.S.
More recently, Sallet addressed the need to focus first on people’s health during the pandemic, but he highlighted the critical role that increased broadband access can play in moving through tough times to better ones. “As we look back on this moment through the lens of history at the end of the decade, I am hopeful that we will see that we persevered, that we conquered disease, and came back from adversity, that we used the needs of the day to build the strengths of tomorrow—including high performance broadband that can be used by everyone in America,” he said.
Many of the recommendations in the report underline the central role that state governments play in expanding broadband access and mirror findings presented in How States Are Expanding Broadband Access, a recent report from The Pew Charitable Trusts’ broadband research initiative.
The Benton report notes that while the federal government can take action on a larger scale, states can develop tailored strategies to target available resources where they are most needed.
As Pew’s State Broadband Policy Explorer shows, states are already acting: they are establishing broadband goals, creating statewide plans, and funding grant programs to support infrastructure projects. These efforts can help close the broadband gap while addressing state-specific connectivity needs.
The Benton research also emphasizes the role of local governments, where officials are more familiar with local needs. The team identifies ways that local governments can support broadband expansion, such as entering into public-private partnerships, building open-access fiber optic networks, and changing permitting processes to facilitate construction of broadband infrastructure.
Community anchor institutions—such as libraries and schools—can serve as key local partners because people without broadband at home often go to such places for internet access. As such, the report notes that projects that extend connectivity to these institutions often provide a starting point for bringing broadband access to the community more broadly.
In addition to highlighting the role of state and local governments, the Benton report explores other key issues, for example, the need for competition in broadband markets to increase affordability, the importance of initiatives to support adoption and use, and how to deploy strategies effectively.
The analysis concludes by making a case for the importance of broadband—to expand economic growth and address policy problems, but also to build stronger communities and a more inclusive democracy. Broadband, the report notes, “will—if fully accessible to all in America—help us solve some of our most critical societal challenges, meet people wherever they live and work, and help them overcome key barriers.”
Although the digital divide has been a challenge for decades, the current pandemic reinforces the need for long-term, permanent solutions that connect more Americans to high-speed, reliable internet, a resource that can help them navigate the near term and thrive in the years ahead.
Kathryn de Wit is a manager and Dan Kitson a senior associate with the broadband research initiative at The Pew Charitable Trusts.