States nationwide committed last year to significant funding to expand access to broadband services, even amid an economic recession. The COVID-19 pandemic—and the necessity to move routine activities such as schooling and doctors’ visits online to maintain social distancing—sharpened the focus of governors and lawmakers in 2020 on the need to close the digital divide.
States continued to establish programs to oversee broadband development and expand the types of entities that could engage in broadband deployment projects. In addition, many states decisively deployed federal pandemic-relief dollars to address short- and long-term connectivity needs.
As of May 2021, state leaders continue on this path. For example, in his State of the State address, Wisconsin Governor Tony Evers (D) declared that 2021 would be “the Year of Broadband Access” and deemed expanding its availability one of the state’s top three priorities. In total, nearly 40 governors, both Democrats and Republicans, outlined broadband initiatives in their annual State of the State speeches. State legislatures have passed and continue to pass bills that advance statewide goals to expand internet access and prepare for the use of additional federal funding.
Despite difficult economic circumstances, lawmakers in 2020 continued to appropriate dollars to boost broadband in their states. Twelve legislatures allocated money to existing broadband funds, with totals ranging from $1.5 million to $51 million, or to other state entities authorized to finance broadband projects. Large funding commitments for broadband deployment would be noteworthy in any year, but that was especially the case in 2020 because they occurred amid significant budget uncertainty linked to the recession.
In Virginia, the General Assembly has increased funding to the Virginia Telecommunications Initiative (VATI)—which oversees expansion of broadband service into unserved areas of the state—from $1 million in 2017 to $20 million for fiscal 2020. For this fiscal year, Governor Ralph Northam (D) requested $35 million for VATI. The legislature then appropriated an additional $16 million, bringing the total to $51 million.
In addition, six states—Arkansas, Kansas, Kentucky, Michigan, Oregon, and Pennsylvania—passed legislation in their 2020 legislative sessions to create new broadband funds. That brought the total number of states with broadband funds to 37. In Pennsylvania, for example, lawmakers launched the Unserved High-Speed Broadband Funding Program, which will provide grants for high-speed broadband infrastructure projects in unserved areas of the commonwealth.
State broadband funds created in 2020 target a variety of purposes, including infrastructure loans and grants, expanding service into underserved and unserved areas, and conducting feasibility studies for federal grant programs. Like most state broadband grant programs formed in prior years, those established last year overwhelmingly focused on providing grant money to expand broadband infrastructure, especially in those areas of greatest need.
Along with the continued investment in broadband funds, multiple states created broadband offices (including Louisiana, Kansas, and Florida) and task forces (including Wisconsin, West Virginia, Oklahoma, and Colorado), which will play critical roles in leading and administering state broadband deployment programs. States task their broadband programs with overseeing stakeholder engagement, data management, planning, and administering grant programs—all essential for effective coordination of broadband deployment.
In most instances, legislators created the new state broadband offices and task forces, but several governors expanded their broadband programs through executive orders. Colorado Governor Jared Polis (D) ordered the creation of the Colorado Broadband Advisory Board, Wisconsin’s Evers established the Governor’s Task Force on Broadband Access, and Kansas Governor Laura Kelly (D) formed the Kansas Office of Broadband Development.
In addition to establishing governance structures, states continued clarifying which entities can build broadband infrastructure or provide service. Three states—Arizona, Nebraska, and Virginia—authorized electric utility providers to use easements for construction of “middle mile broadband infrastructure,” the term for a physical network that links the internet backbone to local internet networks.
Meanwhile, five states—Arizona, Indiana, Louisiana, South Carolina, and West Virginia—passed legislation that authorized electric or telephone cooperatives to use or lease their utility equipment to provide last mile broadband service. That approach mirrors what other states have done in past years. New Hampshire and Vermont passed bills in 2020 that allow municipalities to form communication union districts—two or more towns that join to build broadband infrastructure—and provide broadband services to residents.
States have recognized that getting unserved communities online requires lowering barriers to entry—such as the availability of middle mile infrastructure, particularly for nontraditional providers. Adding tools to the toolbox creates more opportunities to bring connections to communities that might otherwise not have access to reliable, high-speed broadband.
Multiple states dedicated portions of their Coronavirus Relief Funds (CRF) received through the 2020 Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act to address connectivity needs. Several, including Kansas, Mississippi, Missouri, New Hampshire, South Carolina, Tennessee, and Virginia, established emergency infrastructure grant programs.
That step enabled them to quickly establish grant guidelines and award CRF money to deploy as much broadband infrastructure as possible before Dec. 31, 2020, the federal funding deadline. States with existing broadband grant programs allocated federal relief dollars to those funds. For example, North Carolina, Oregon, and Arkansas made appropriations to existing broadband programs. In other states, leaders saw the need for greater connectivity to help students at a time when most schools had moved to online learning: Alabama, Colorado, Connecticut, Mississippi, and South Carolina all established emergency online learning programs with their CRF dollars to connect students to digital devices and broadband services for remote learning.
States are preparing for another round of federal funds from the American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) and a potential infrastructure bill. Policymakers have put processes in place to allocate additional aid. Kentucky, Texas, New Mexico, and Idaho, for example, established offices or programs or passed laws outlining how federal broadband funding will be allocated.
With the expectation of more federal dollars, states continue to act. Illinois Governor J.B. Pritzker (D) set a goal to achieve universal access by 2024. Other governors have called for large financial investments in their broadband programs, such as Indiana Governor Eric Holcomb (R), who requested $100 million in broadband funding for fiscal 2022. They are also focusing on funding technologies that will be useful in the future. For example, Iowa Governor Kim Reynolds (R) signed a measure that targets universally available 100/100 Mbps service and requested $150 million annually for the next three years to fund it. The Legislature passed the bill unanimously.
States are taking aggressive action to meet connectivity goals. Policymakers are investing significant resources, passing laws, and establishing policy frameworks. This focus—which was growing before the pandemic—underscores why it is so critical for states to have a defined role in any federal broadband effort. Clearly setting that role would allow for greater coordination between levels of government. That would better ensure effective stewardship of public funds and help the nation more quickly achieve universal availability of high-speed, affordable broadband.
Anna Read is a senior officer and Lily Gong is an associate with The Pew Charitable Trusts’ broadband access initiative.