Aug 24 2021

What Can State CIOs Do to Encourage Broadband Expansion?

Federal funding will help, but state CIOs can also push forward by being collaborative partners.

It’s more important than ever for state and local governments to try to close the digital divide and give all residents access to fast, reliable and affordable broadband internet. The coronavirus pandemic has shown that broadband is indispensable for so many facets of modern life: working, going to school and accessing critical government services remotely.

Thankfully, state and local agencies appear to be on the verge of getting some badly need help from the federal government. In early August, the Senate included $65 billion for broadband in a bipartisan infrastructure bill.

While this funding is crucial to expanding broadband access and will surely be appreciated by state and local elected officials and IT leaders, funding on its own will not be enough to expand broadband. States need to develop expertise in applying for and administering federal grants, and state CIOs also need to work collaboratively, both with other state agencies and with local communities, to get projects completed on the ground and ensure buy-in from localities.

Federal Funding Can Help Close the Digital Divide

The Senate infrastructure bill defines broadband service as a modest 100 megabits per second for downloads and 20Mbps for uploads.

As Blair Levin, a nonresident senior fellow with the Metropolitan Policy Program at the Brookings Institution, explains in a blog post, the largest part of the $65 billion in the infrastructure bill devoted to broadband is “a $42.5 billion appropriation to the states to fund broadband network deployments, prioritizing areas currently lacking a network capable of offering a 25 Megabits per second (Mbps) download and 3 Mbps upload service.”

States will get this funding and will then work with localities and internet service providers to expand broadband service. As Fast Company reports, the funds will be administered by the National Telecommunications and Information Administration within the Department of Commerce. Notably, as the publication reports, “any broadband provider that takes the government handout will be required to offer a low-cost tier of service (satisfying the defined speed requirements) in the markets they serve in the state.”

Levin argues this chunk of funding is “likely to be sufficient to deploy a future-proof network to nearly every business and home in the United States.”

EXPLORE: Find out how a new rural broadband testing site is being set up in Iowa.

As he notes, the legislation also appropriates $14.25 billion “to fund a $30 per month subsidy for low-income Americans to purchase broadband.” It also orders the Federal Communications Commission to develop a reform plan for its Universal Service Fund program.

The bill also appropriates $2.75 billion for digital literacy and inclusion efforts that ensure “individuals and communities have the information technology capacity that is needed for full participation in the society and economy of the United States.”

All of this funding, especially the large portion that will go to the states, will help government agencies, working in concert with the private sector and nonprofit organizations, to close the digital divide.

“The infrastructure bill acknowledges the crucial role that states play in expanding broadband access,” Kathryn de Wit, who leads the broadband access initiative at The Pew Charitable Trusts, tells Fast Company.

 RELATED: What is the state of the digital divide?

Best Practices for State CIOs to Expand Broadband Access

It’s important to note that the Senate bill is not yet law and needs to be passed by the House and signed by President Joe Biden. That might not happen until the fall.

It’s equally important to bear in mind that funding, on its own, will not move the needle on broadband deployments. Elected leaders, state CIOs and other state IT leaders need to play an active role in shepherding these deployments to fruition.

Collaboration within state government is key. Colorado CIO Tony Neal-Graves previously served as the executive director of the Colorado Broadband Office. In 2019, the office formalized relationships with other state agencies, as Government Technology reports, and the state set up a public advisory board that included industry representatives, local officials and directors of state agencies.

Funding is only good if states, localities and internet service providers can get access to it. Some may not know how to navigate a federal grant process or have the resources to do so. In Colorado, the state put a staff member in charge of the federal grant process to serve as a go-to expert.

“My mantra was, ‘Let’s get our unfair share of the money,’” Neal-Graves said in May, as GovTech reports.

Neal-Graves also emphasized the importance of getting support from local communities. “It’s a classic ‘It takes a village,’” he said. “It’s great the federal government is now providing more funds, but if you don’t have the engagement at the local level, it’s incredibly challenging to provide solutions to those communities.”

Minnesota CIO Tarek Tomes noted in May that the state’s broadband efforts are housed within the Department of Employment and Economic Development, which means broadband access and economic development are deeply linked. “[Having] broadband in economic development is ideal because the connection between what happens in the economy and broadband access is so intertwined,” he said, according to GovTech.

EXPLORE: How are cities expanding broadband access?

Some states are already moving ahead with broadband initiatives. In North Carolina, Gov. Roy Cooper recently unveiled a new Office of Digital Equity and Literacy, which will spearhead efforts to execute on Cooper’s plan to use about $1.2 billion in American Rescue Plan funds to close the digital divide in the state by 2025.

And in California, Gov. Gavin Newsom in July signed a $6 billion broadband expansion bill. The legislation would, among other things, appropriate $3.25 billion to “build, operate and maintain an open access, state-owned middle mile network — high-capacity fiber lines that carry large amounts of data at higher speeds over longer distances between local networks,” according to a statement. It would also include $2 billion to “set up last-mile broadband connections that will connect homes and businesses with local networks.” The legislation speeds up project deployments and enables tribes and local governments to access this funding.

Expanding broadband access requires a whole-of-government approach. State CIOs can play a critical role in collaborating with other state leaders and agencies, helping apply for and administer grants, working with local communities and providing technical knowledge for broadband deployments. As Neal-Graves says, it does indeed take a village.

This article is part of StateTech’s CITizen blog series. Please join the discussion on Twitter by using the #StateLocalIT hashtag.

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