Many states accelerated efforts to bridge the digital divide last year as the COVID-19 pandemic brought into stark focus the need for high-speed, reliable internet connections in order to work, go to school, access health and other necessary services, and remain in contact with family and friends.
State policymakers committed significant budgets to expand access to broadband services despite a recession. In 2021, passage of the American Rescue Plan, which includes billions of dollars for addressing the divide, and promising negotiations in Congress on bipartisan infrastructure legislation will make state expertise and experience implementing broadband a crucial factor in connecting the country.
On June 23, state lawmakers and policymakers discussed their roles in providing universal broadband access in a webinar convened by The Pew Charitable Trusts. And though the experiences in their states—West Virginia, Colorado, and Virginia—were unique, the officials identified common factors that will help bring internet throughout the United States.
Speakers said they would like federal dollars distributed to states in block grants, a mechanism that would give them greater autonomy over how and where to spend the money.
“There’s no ‘one size fits all’ when addressing the digital divide,” said Tamarah Holmes, director of Virginia’s office of broadband. “We’d like to have flexibility to address our specific issues.”
Officials also agreed that to use funding effectively, the federal government must set a clear definition of reliable broadband access. For example, current guidelines may prevent federal money from being spent in places that already have at least one internet provider, said West Virginia State Delegate Daniel Linville (R). Even though many communities across the country may have an internet provider, users’ connections are often still slow, he said.
What the federal government can do, the officials agreed, is specify what kind of access states should provide, while allowing the states to devise and oversee how programs are implemented.
“If we don’t accomplish the outcomes, pull the money back,” said Linville. “That puts the onus on states and localities.”
The officials also said that the definition of acceptable internet speed has been a major roadblock to providing universal access. The Federal Communication Commission’s threshold of 25 megabits per second download and 3 megabits per second upload—known as 25/3—is widely considered insufficient to handle modern—or future—internet speeds.
“When you have three or four people in a household accessing [the internet]—students at school and parents trying to work—we found we were so woefully underserved, that I can’t find an area of West Virginia, which is largely rural, that is properly served, to be honest,” said West Virginia State Senator Robert Plymale (D). “This is not a luxury. This is something we have to provide to citizens.”
In addition to users not being able to quickly download content they need, uploading is even slower with the 25/3 standard, a reality that won’t work, for example, in a telehealth appointment, Linville said. “Is it more important for you to see your doctor or your doctor to see you and how that surgical scar is healing?”
An accurate picture
Knowing where current internet providers are serving customers is crucial, state officials said, whether in cities and suburbs with fast connections or in rural areas that need connectivity. It’s also important to know where they may be investing resources.
The providers are for-profit companies with responsibilities to shareholders, said Teresa Ferguson, director of federal broadband engagement for Colorado’s broadband office. “If you already have one provider in a community, there’s really no incentive for them to invest in better infrastructure and to provide more creative products in areas where they don’t have competition,” she said.
Census data from 2019 shows that about a quarter of people in the U.S. do not have a wired broadband connection. But the data does not convey the reality on the ground, said Missouri State Representative Louis Riggs, a Republican who couldn’t attend the webinar. “What we see from the feds is out of date and inaccurate,” he said in comments submitted to the panel. “Listen to the states and provide honest maps in real time.”
Linville and Plymale worked with the West Virginia Broadband Enhancement Council and state broadband office to collect information and data and perform speed tests to create an internet availability map that identifies unserved and underserved areas. Maps such as these can help channel funds to bring infrastructure to places with no internet connection, said Linville.
Users must also be able to pay for the services or state-of-the-art connections won’t matter.
Fostering competition among internet providers is key, Linville said. Many internet service providers are also telephone and cable television providers, and have relied on those services for their income. But as revenues from the other services decline, the companies often increase costs for internet services, even though “there’s not an increased cost for providing that,” he added. “But when providers compete, consumers win.”
Colorado’s Ferguson noted that states need help from the federal government to address affordability because the challenge is “just too large.”
“You can approach infrastructure investments and affordability with the same good polices,” she said. “But that creativity needs to happen at the state level with forward-looking frameworks set at the federal level.”
Steps to improve communication among municipal, state, and federal government parties would also help ensure high-speed, reliable internet for all Americans. Too often the state and federal governments operate on separate pathways, multiple speakers said.
Virginia, for example, has made a significant investment in addressing the digital divide, and now has a $51 million budget to spend. But there is no formal process for states to share which areas have received funding through their programs with federal policymakers, including those who determine which areas are eligible for funding. This has created challenges because federal programs identify areas that were connected by state dollars as eligible for federal funding.
“We’ve been operating in silos,” Holmes said.
One solution could be to use public private partnerships (P3s). In Virginia, applications to expand internet access require that both a local government unit and the private sector partner are involved in both the planning and deployment stages.
“Communities know best where their needs are and whether they lack service,” Holmes added. It’s important, she said, that every single person who touches broadband is involved in developing the state’s guidelines, which are updated every year.
Plymale agreed on the importance of different entities talking with one another. “We have to be able to coordinate the communication between federal, local, and state government,” he said. “We only have one shot at making this right.”
The panel concluded with a call for Congress to support efforts in states that have made progress by setting forward-looking goals, focusing on the outcomes, and backing local initiatives through policy, P3s, or community engagement and planning. The time is now, speakers emphasized, for the House and Senate to provide the structure, the high standards, and the funding to let the states act and respond to community needs.
Kathryn de Wit directs The Pew Charitable Trusts’ broadband access initiative.