As the coronavirus forces millions of Americans to work, study, and socialize from home, the importance of broadband access has never been more keenly felt. But the issue is not new. The past several years have seen states pass a raft of broadband legislation, as policymakers have recognized the central role that broadband plays in providing people with education, health care, social connection, and economic opportunity. The 2019 legislative session was no different, as states took action to expand access to broadband, even before the coronavirus highlighted the need for more connectivity.
The Pew broadband research initiative has updated its State Broadband Policy Explorer to include laws enacted in 2019, a year in which, according to Pew’s data, states focused on three key areas for expanding broadband access: continuing to establish governance and funding structures; clarifying who can provide broadband; and addressing emerging digital issues and opportunities.
Establishing governance and funding structures: States continued to create new entities and funding streams to drive broadband policy, adding to the programs that Pew cataloged in 2018.
Broadband taskforces—groups of stakeholders inside and outside government—can develop recommendations and establish governance structures that lead to the expansion of broadband access. In 2019, Idaho, Iowa, North Carolina, and Texas each created a broadband task force, and Louisiana established one in both the legislative and executive branches. States can also task an existing agency with responsibility for broadband or establish a new office to oversee broadband efforts. That’s what Washington did when it created the Statewide Broadband Office within the Department of Commerce.
Seven states—Arizona, Wyoming, South Dakota, Washington, Vermont, Maryland, and Illinois—set up broadband funding structures in 2019. Although many states, prior to 2019, had established funds to expand access to high-speed internet, money was not always appropriated to those funds. However, the seven states with newly established funding mechanisms also allocated money, including Illinois’ $400 million statewide broadband deployment grant program.
Pew’s research has found that state broadband programs often play the important role of coordinating with other state agencies to support connectivity efforts. For example, Washington’s new broadband office works with the state’s Board of Public Works to administer a competitive grant and loan program.
By creating visible points of contact within state government, setting up stakeholder groups to guide policy, and allocating funds to bridge the divide, states are clarifying what they want to achieve and how they will get there.
Clarifying who can provide broadband service: States have taken steps to make clear which entities may provide broadband service. In 2019, six states—Alabama, Georgia, Maryland, Mississippi, North Carolina, and Texas—enacted bills giving electric cooperatives the authority to provide broadband, either directly or through an affiliate, doubling the number of states that permit this approach. (North Carolina previously allowed only telephone cooperatives to provide broadband service, but passed legislation in 2019 allowing electric cooperatives to provide service as well.) Five of these states—Georgia, Maryland, Mississippi, North Carolina, and Texas—along with Colorado, further clarified that electric cooperatives can use their existing electric easements for broadband service. This allowance prevents cooperatives from having to negotiate new easements with property owners, thus removing a barrier that can increase costs and time.
States clarifying which entities are allowed to provide broadband service is an important step forward in addressing the digital divide. In particular, specifying which entities are eligible for funding can offer new providers the opportunity to enter the market and clarifies the options that local leaders have to increase broadband access through public-private partnerships or by providing internet themselves.
Addressing emerging digital issues: While 2019 saw the continuation of trends from previous years in the form of governance and funding structures, as well as clarity in service provisions, there were also some new developments.
These included Colorado and Maine passing measures that require recipients of state broadband grant money to abide by net neutrality—a requirement that internet service providers treat all internet traffic equally and not favor some content over other. Both those states, plus Vermont, also enacted provisions that encourage state contractors to follow net neutrality rules, either by requiring state agencies to give priority to contractors who agree to be net neutral, or by prohibiting agencies from contracting with companies that do not.
States also addressed issues related to 5G wireless technology, reflecting both growing interest in and concern about the role of this emerging technology for the future of broadband networks. Eleven states—Arizona, Arkansas, Georgia, Kansas, Maine, Nebraska, Nevada, North Carolina, Tennessee, West Virginia, and Wisconsin—passed laws addressing the deployment of 5G networks, for example by outlining permitting processes for the installation of 5G and placing restrictions on the size of small cell wireless facilities. Connecticut and Alabama both created task forces to address issues related to 5G, while New Hampshire created a task force devoted specifically to studying the health effects of this new technology.
The 2019 legislative session also saw states exploring new roles for investor-owned electric utilities to expand middle mile infrastructure, the critical component for increasing last mile connectivity in homes and small businesses. Virginia, for example, established a three-year pilot program that allows these utilities to petition the state’s Corporation Commission to lease excess capacity on their fiber optic cables to internet service providers in unserved areas. Similarly, West Virginia’s law creates a process for electric utilities to conduct feasibility studies and get permission from the state’s Public Service Commission to build and lease middle mile fiber along their existing electric service delivery infrastructure.
By building on existing developments and exploring new approaches, governors and legislators continued to lead the effort to increase broadband access in 2019. From creating new programs and establishing broadband funds to removing regulatory barriers and providing policy leadership through task forces, state leaders took action on several fronts. These changes and many more are included in the updated edition of Pew’s State Broadband Policy Explorer.
Although states made important progress in 2019 expanding broadband access, there is still much work to do. That is why broadband policy continued to develop in 2020 before many state legislatures halted their schedules in response to the coronavirus epidemic. For example, Maine and Virginia substantially increased the money available for broadband in their states. Maine added $15 million to its ConnectMaine fund and Virginia appropriated $34.7 million to its broadband grant programs in each of the next two years. Additionally, states are considering legislation aimed at expanding access to broadband in response to the coronavirus, such as a proposal in Massachusetts that would require internet service providers to provide broadband access to students who lack connectivity and whose schools have closed.
State policymakers continue to play an increasingly important role in broadband policy, and their role will evolve and adapt as they confront new challenges and find new ways of expanding connectivity.
Kathryn de Wit is a manager, Anna Read is an officer, and Dan Kitson is a senior associate with The Pew Charitable Trusts’ broadband research initiative.