After more than two decades of work by federal and state governments to secure broadband internet access, millions of Americans remain without it—14.5 million, according to the Federal Communications Commission estimate published in early January.
Unless the real number is the 42 million that the research group BroadbandNow found when that site’s experts did their own deeper dive into the provider-furnished coverage data behind the FCC figure.
Or maybe the true figure is 157.3 million, calculated by Microsoft from how fast it sees its updates download to people’s computers.
It’s even fuzzier how much the monthly cost of subscribing to broadband deters Americans from having a connection at home or keeps them on slow and outdated connections that make streaming video, sharing documents, and other common chores irritatingly slow or impossible.
Living on the wrong side of the digital divide brings serious costs in terms of lost opportunities. And the pandemic only magnified these problems, as students moved to online classes, patients had to visit doctors by teleconferences, and out-of-work Americans applied for aid and sought new jobs online. News coverage of school districts struggling to connect with students gave rise to a recurring visual: families parked outside public libraries and other sites offering Wi-Fi as kids did their homework in cars.
“We simply don’t know how many Americans don’t have access to broadband,” says Kathryn de Wit, who directs The Pew Charitable Trusts’ broadband access initiative. “We don’t know how many Americans can’t afford broadband where it’s available.”
The Pew initiative aims to find and document what works to expand access to broadband that’s both fast enough to be effective and affordable enough for everyone.
Pew experts spent three years studying state broadband programs, identifying key practices and policies that helped leaders bridge the broadband gap at the state level. Some common practices emerged in successful states, including establishing specific funding sources to pay for expansion and prioritizing fiber optic cable over other delivery systems.
“Our research shows states are uniquely positioned to close the digital divide,” de Wit says. “State leaders routinely grapple with the factors that determine the success or failure of broadband programs, such as geography, population density, and state and local law. They are the ones working with local stakeholders, developing expansion plans, and using data to inform funding decisions. State leaders are key to the national goal of universal access.”
A complex journey across the digital divide needs a map, but the cartography of connectivity available today has issues. Blame them on a form—the Form 477 filing the FCC requires internet providers to submit twice a year. On it, they only have to specify coverage at the census block level, even if they serve just one structure in an area that may span a few blocks or stretch dozens of miles, leaving unconnected homes and businesses unnoted.
Form 477 filings must disclose the fastest download and upload speeds a provider advertises in a census block, but not average or median speeds—so they don’t necessarily paint the clearest picture of users’ online experiences, which can vary based on several factors, ranging from the number of users on a network to the weather. And the form doesn’t require disclosure of the rates charged consumers. Yet these FCC filings have been driving the definition of who has and doesn’t have high speed internet in America for years—and, importantly, have directed much of the public funding available for expansion.
Well before the Biden administration proposed new federal funding for broadband expansion, many states had set out to ensure their residents have access to high-speed internet. But those policymakers also must rely on the providers—who often don’t want competitors coming onto their turf—for the very information needed to develop accurate coverage maps. That’s led to a frequent bargain between states and incumbent providers: If those firms will privately confirm exactly where they offer access, states will direct their broadband financing to other areas.
“We’ve been able to align the private sector’s interests with ours,” said Tamarah Holmes, director of the Office of Broadband at Virginia’s Department of Housing and Community Development. “That has been effective as a means to build out broadband without overbuilding.”
This approach does, however, foreclose bringing new choices to markets today dominated by local monopolies. “The opposite of overbuilding is monopoly preservation,” says Gigi Sohn, a distinguished fellow at the Georgetown Law Institute for Technology Law & Policy who was a policy adviser to former FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler.
Virginia is among the states making inroads in expanding broadband access, having set a goal of “functionally universal” access—that is, when local governments and citizens no longer describe serious deficiencies in broadband availability—by 2028. Its leaders have emphasized funding efficiency, in the sense of how many new connections each state dollar can cover, but not at the expense of tending only to high-population areas. They have further focused on using the proven technology of fiber optic cable instead of venturing into such newer technology as 5G wireless (which can require much more equipment per square mile than slower, lower-capacity 4G) or low Earth orbit satellite (early in its deployment but also unlikely to yield enough capacity except in the most rural areas).
Two years ago, the Virginia General Assembly authorized electric utilities to install and lease their excess fiber to internet service providers. This change should bring down the cost of expanding access to homes and businesses in areas where it would otherwise be unprofitable for providers to build the necessary infrastructure.
“Virginia is a great example of the crucial role states play in expanding broadband access,” de Wit says. “Policies there are transparent and accountable to people in every corner of the state.”
Minnesota has emerged as another leader. There, a governor’s task force on broadband expansion has connected leaders from local communities and governments, business, educational institutions, health care facilities, tribes, and internet service providers to provide policy recommendations to the governor and Legislature.
The task force keeps broadband access in the public spotlight and has consistently recommended additional funding over the decade it has existed. Since 2014, Minnesota’s Legislature has awarded $129 million in grants to expand access, which in turn triggered another $146.5 million in matching funds from local and private investment.
That spending brought new high-speed internet service to more than 43,000 households, nearly 7,000 businesses, and more than 360 schools, health care facilities, libraries, and other community institutions across Minnesota.
“Community voices are key,” says Bernadine Joselyn of the Blandin Foundation, who serves on the task force. “It’s well established by now that including diverse voices in public policy discussions encourages creative and innovative thinking, which leads to better decision-making and problem-solving.”
To get around the sometimes vague data the providers offer, some states are turning directly to the public to see what works—and doesn’t work. Peggy Schaffer, who directs the ConnectMaine Authority, a unit of state government leading broadband expansion, says it is improving its map by inviting citizens to submit their own speed tests to show what providers are actually giving consumers. “It really brings in the customer voice,” she says.
(At the federal level, the FCC has recently taken a similar approach, inviting people to download the FCC’s own speed-test app, test their service, and share their findings with regulators.)
Some states seeking to expand broadband are also sharpening the requirements in the broadband grants awarded to internet providers to cover their broadband-buildout costs. Stronger accountability measures such as requiring better data collection, regular checks on a provider’s progress, and clawback provisions that require providers to return public funds if they don’t deliver the promised service can prevent repeats of past misadventures in broadband expansion.
Federal broadband programs have often demonstrated the need for that level of accountability. The FCC’s Connect America Fund program sent hundreds of millions of dollars to incumbent providers to build out service only to see the companies fall behind contracted schedules, leaving the FCC to fine them. Having larger companies win these grants with unrealistic bids may be part of the problem.
A more recent subsidy program, the FCC’s Rural Digital Opportunity Fund, drew criticism when the digital-equity group Free Press found it was funding service expansions in places that either already had broadband or lacked human inhabitants.
“That was generally a disaster,” Schaffer said. “In Maine, we have blueberry fields that are getting service—nobody lives on those fields.”
Schaffer notes that some of Maine’s best grant recipients are local phone companies that have used state funding to replace aging digital-subscriber-line connections with modern high-speed fiber lines.
“We have several in the state that I would call mom and pop shops,” she said. “We have been helping them, in pieces, to build out their network.”
Those local efforts are gaining steam elsewhere in the nation, including municipally owned broadband, in which a town, city, or county builds its own network and either sells internet access directly to consumers or welcomes third-party providers to do that on the network—another type of public-private partnership.
State laws have restricted many municipal broadband proposals, but there appears to be a growing interest in opening the process up. In February, Arkansas—where policymakers had previously shown little interest in public ownership of communications providers—mostly repealed its ban on municipal broadband.
“Arkansas blew my mind,” says Christopher Mitchell, director of the Community Broadband Networks Initiative at the Institute for Local Self-Reliance, which advocates for locally based providers. He says that the way the pandemic showed the need for everyone to have access to usable broadband enables policymakers to be more resistant to pushback from established providers’ concerns about competition.
And federal leaders’ interest in broadband access also has been recharged by the pandemic. The $100 billion marked for broadband expansion in the Biden administration’s American Jobs Plan infrastructure proposal as well as other proposed federal spending could go a long way toward laying a lot more fiber cable. Federal funding for broadband provided in the American Rescue Plan Act also embraces some research-based practices for expanding broadband, including prioritizing community-based solutions and raising the federal speed minimum. “This is the first time we’ve seen a federal proposal clearly say we want to address all of the elements of the connectivity problem,” says de Wit.
After three years of research on the topic, Pew’s broadband initiative now looks to promote the fruits of its findings to federal and state policymakers and help efforts to increase access to high-speed internet.
“Ensuring that every American household has high-speed, reliable, and affordable internet will require work of federal lawmakers, state leaders, community stakeholders, internet service providers, and researchers—all committed to addressing each community’s specific broadband challenges,” de Wit says. “We know now, more than ever, that broadband access is not a luxury but a necessity in our modern economy. And now is the time to close the digital divide.”
Rob Pegoraro is a freelance journalist who writes a tech-support column for USA Today and covers technology for a variety of other publications, including Fast Company and The New York Times’ Wirecutter.