Rural broadband: States leading the charge

Feb. 24, 2020
Both sides of the aisle seemed to applaud President Trump's pledge to ensure high-speed Internet access for every citizen, including those in rural America. And on the state level, governors are ...

Both sides of the aisle seemed to applaud President Trump's pledge to ensure high-speed Internet access for every citizen, including those in rural America. And on the state level, governors are now talking about broadband as critical infrastructure, Government Technology said. For example, Mississippi Governor Tate Reeves has stated that broadband access is a priority; Maine Governor Janet Mills has requested $15 million for broadband; South Dakota Governor Kristi Noem has secured $25 million; and Virginia Governor Ralph Northam has asked for $35 million. The report by Government Technology indicated that two-thirds of governors have delivered speeches about the importance of broadband or specifically outlining funding requirements and requests.

But what specifically are states putting into place? Pew's Broadband Research Initiative follows the tangible results of state policies in the broadband arena and will release a new report on Thursday detailing how states are bridging the broadband gap.

As a preview to this new iteration of its findings, Pew Charitable Trusts hosted a conversation with state leaders earlier this month. During the event, Pew experts highlighted the five promising practices they have uncovered, and state policymakers detailed specifics about what they have been doing.

The most important component to state broadband programs is the people, said Katherine de Witt, manager, Pew Broadband Research Initiative. Among these she counts state broadband officers and program teams, legislators and governors, as well as service providers, and others representing a broad range of stakeholders, including education, healthcare, and agriculture.

Second in importance is having a policy framework, which defines a clear direction and establishes a goal. One example de Witt provided was the concept of making sure there are no policy barriers to providing broadband, such as a prohibition on who can or cannot provide broadband. Third on the list of components that are proving successful for states is tying broadband to other policy priorities like education or healthcare.

Fourth, then, is gaining funding and addressing accountability, which reinforces the community/provider relationship, de Witt said, and fifth is program evaluation and evolution. De Witt pointed to California, which collects data on access and adoption and keeps track of how many previously unconnected households now subscribe.

"There is no one activity or policy that solves the problem," de Witt said. "Practices build on and complement one another, and (they are) not necessarily sequential. The steps don't need to be followed in sequence."

de Witt went on to describe what Pew is calling the "near universal truths of broadband," namely, the importance of executive and legislative leadership; dedicated staff who are visible and responsive; and broadband program leaders who are viewed as neutral partners.

One of the states represented by on the panel at the talk was West Virginia. Kelly Workman, project development manager at the West Virginia Development Office, said the "tip of the spear" for her state is the Broadband Enhancement Council created in 2017. The program has four components - policy and project development, speed testing, mapping and data testing, advocacy and education.

"We have several major barriers. We have mountainous topography, low population density and lack of a middle mile infrastructure. Our legislature has taken a methodical approach. We can't do much about the mountains … but we can improve the middle mile infrastructure," Workman said.

The West Virginia legislature has passed a bill to enable state public electric utilities to begin running the middle mile infrastructure, for example. Broadband is now characterized as a utility in the same manner as water, and there is a dig-once policy. West Virginia will now be a self-regulating state in terms of pole attachments so that when disputes arise they will settle into West Virginia instead of the FCC.

"States have long developed water and waste water programs so this is a natural progression to move into broadband infrastructure," Workman said.

The research that will come out from the Pew's Broadband Research Initiative on Thursday will detail more about the promising practices and specifics about how other states are achieving successes.

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